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Chiluba denounces graft trial

LUSAKA, Aug 17 – Zambia’s former president Frederick Chiluba accused the government of leaving him at the hands of "imperialists" by charging him with corruption, after a court acquitted him Monday.

After a six-year trial, Chiluba was cleared of charges that he embezzled 500,000 dollars during his 10-year rule over his impoverished nation.

Speaking at his home after the verdict, Chiluba said the case had been backed by "imperialists", following his 2007 conviction on graft charges in London, where a court found him guilt of stealing nearly 50 million dollars of state funds.

"What kind of a government is this that could put its president at the hands of a foreign land and imperialists? For seven years I’ve been subjected to harassment and shame and embarrassment," he said.

Chiluba also denounced the conviction earlier this year of his wife Regina, who was sentenced to three and a half years for receiving stolen property. She is appealing the sentence.

"Merely by associating with me, she has been convicted, but she still remains my wife," he said.

Chiluba’s case had resonated across a continent where a raft of leaders are also embroiled in graft scandals, though few have been convicted.

Chiluba, known for flashy suits and custom elevator shoes, on Monday was cleared of charges that he embezzled 500,000 dollars in public funds during his decade in power.

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"We are satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the prosecution failed to prove that the accused stole funds," judge Jones Chinyama said as he read out the verdict in a six-hour hearing.

The ruling caps Zambia’s six-year prosecution against Chiluba, who had faced a jail term of up to five years.

He has already been convicted in 2007 in a British court of stealing nearly 50 million dollars of state funds along with former aides.

The British court found that while Chiluba officially earned about 100,000 dollars during his 10 years in power, he paid more than one million dollars to an exclusive Swiss boutique for flashy suits.

Despite his acquittal, the trial marked an ignominious turn for the former trade unionist who was hailed for ending one-party rule in Zambia when he terminated the 27-year reign of founding president Kennneth Kaunda in elections in 1991.

Chiluba has always insisted that the Lusaka charges were political.

The case was brought by his hand-picked successor, the late president Levy Mwanawasa, who launched a sweeping anti-corruption drive that has already convicted a raft of top political and military officials.

Mwanawasa stripped his former mentor of immunity against prosecution.

Chiluba’s wife Regina was sentenced earlier this year to three and a half years for receiving stolen property. She is appealing the sentence.

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The ruling was deferred last month after Chiluba, who faces the graft charges alongside two businessmen, failed to file written submissions in time to the court for consideration in the judgment.

He is still waging a separate legal battle to get the Zambian Supreme Court not to recognise his 2007 graft conviction by a British court.

In the London case Chiluba and others were found guilty of defrauding the Zambian government, and the court ruled that he should be denied access to his pension at Barclays Bank.

The conviction could see his local assets seized if Zambian courts decide to apply the verdict locally.

Zambia’s government last year began efforts to register the judgement locally to begin recovering the money. Chiluba has argued that the British court ruling should not apply here.

During the London case, the judge pointed to Chiluba’s extravagant tastes and said Zambians should know that Chiluba’s flashy suits were paid for with money stolen from them by the former president.

Chiluba had hundreds of custom-made shirts bearing his monogramme and "signature" shoes with raised heels to support the man who measures 1.5 metres (about five feet) tall, the British court found.

Nearly two thirds of Zambia’s 11.7 million people live on less than two dollars a day.

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