March 23, 2020 / 6:41 PM / 2 months ago

UPDATE 1-Former DR Congo health minister convicted of embezzling Ebola funds

(Adds reaction from ex-health minister)

By Stanis Bujakera

KINSHASA, March 23 (Reuters) - A former health minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo was sentenced on Monday to five years in prison for embezzling more than $400,000 from the country’s Ebola response funds, a court order showed.

Oly Ilunga was health minister for seven months at the height of the Ebola epidemic in eastern Congo, which has killed more than 2,200 people since mid-2018. It is winding down now, with no new cases recorded in over a month.

In a statement, Ilunga said he had not authorised the two payments in question or benefited from them. He blamed the ministry’s financial adviser Ezechiel Mbuyi, who was also sentenced to five years, and vowed to appeal against the verdict.

“The financial advisor made a payment for which I was not aware, and for which no element of the file demonstrates my direct or indirect implication,” Ilunga said.

Reuters was not immediately able to identify Mbuyi’s lawyer.

President Felix Tshisekedi stripped Ilunga of his role managing the Ebola response last July and he resigned from the government days later, criticising actions taken by Tshisekedi. He was arrested in September.

The court convicted Ilunga and Mbuyi of forging receipts worth $391,332 from a fake company, referred to as New Sarah pharmaceutical depot, to justify purchases of products already paid for by international donors.

The pair diverted a further $13,000 intended to pay for transport of life-saving goods to Ebola hotspots, the court found.

The judgment marks the first time a minister from former President Joseph Kabila’s government has been convicted of corruption since Tshisekedi took power last year.

Ilunga was nominated by Kabila but remained in his post for months while negotiations about Tshiskedi’s first cabinet dragged out.

Having run on an anti-courruption ticket, Tshisekdi’s declared ambitions to clean up public finances have been hampered by an awkward power-sharing deal with Kabila, whose allies control a majority of ministries and seats in parliament.

The hundreds of millions of dollars pumped by foreign donors into the response to Congo’s Ebola outbreak, the second deadliest ever, raised fears of corruption after the response to West Africa’s even larger 2013-16 outbreak was dogged by allegations of graft. (writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Aaron Ross, Angus MacSwan, William Maclean)

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