Zambia's first elected president goes on trial

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

LUSAKA, Zambia -- After months of delays, Zambia's first democratically elected president went on trial Tuesday before a packed courtroom, accused of stealing millions of dollars from state coffers during his decade in power. Former President Frederick Chiluba has pleaded innocent to 169 counts of corruption, abuse of power and the theft of $43 million. He is being tried with four former government officials and two businessmen in a case alleging a web of corruption. Chiluba, who retired in January 2002, is also charged with 65 counts of state theft of nearly $4 million in a separate case, due to start today.

Dressed in a beige suit, the former president occasionally read from a small blue Bible as four witnesses -- a judge, two former civil servants and a civil engineer -- testified against him. About 200 people filled the courtroom, while others leaned in the windows to follow the case.

The case is part of a wide-ranging corruption investigation launched by Chiluba's hand-picked successor, President Levy Mwanawasa.

Prosecutors say money was diverted from the Ministry of Finance to an account at the London branch of the Zambia National Commercial Bank, then transferred offshore.

Chiluba claims the funds were used by the country's intelligence services to fund foreign operations.

But prosecutors say the account was used for personal and political expenses of Chiluba and former intelligence chief Xavier Chungu, who is also on trial.

The former president's lawyers repeatedly delayed the proceedings, arguing that Zambia's constitution protects a former head of state from prosecution for offenses committed while performing official duties. Parliament voted unanimously last year to remove Chiluba's immunity.

Chiluba, a former bus conductor, rose to the presidency in 1991, defeating Zambia's founding leader Kenneth Kaunda, who had been in power for 26 years following independence from Britain.

After a peaceful transition, Zambia was heralded as a model of democracy in Africa. At first, Chiluba expanded civil and political rights. Despite repeated promises to step down when his second term ended, Chiluba flirted with changing the constitution to allow a third run. The move angered many Zambians and he was forced to retire.

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