An Algerian court on Monday sentenced in absentia ex-energy ministry Chakib Khelil, who served under former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to 20 years in prison on corruption charges, local media reported.
The Sidi M’Hamed court in Algiers also fined the longtime former minister, who served for half of Bouteflika’s 20-year tenure, two million dinars (about $14,200).
A former head of the North African country’s oil and gas firm Sonatrach, Mohamed Meziane, was sentenced to five years in prison and a one-million dinar fine in the same trial.
Meziane is already serving time in a separate case.
The two men’s trial opened on February 1, with the prosecution demanding 20- and 10-year sentences for them respectively.
The two former officials stood accused, along with others, of corruption in connection with the Arzew gas complex in the western province of Oran, as well as “granting undue privileges”, abuse of their positions and “concluding contracts in violation of laws and regulations”, according to national news agency APS.
In 2013, the Algerian judiciary issued an international arrest warrant for Khelil over a case involving contracts between Sonatrach and foreign companies, including SAIPEM, a unit of Italian energy giant ENI.
Prosecutors in Milan had accused SAIPEM of paying bribes to obtain contracts in Algeria, and the subsidiary was fined in 2018, before being cleared by an appeals court in 2020.
Khelil, now 82, quit his post in 2010 and moved to the United States after being associated with a scandal involving high-ranking Sonatrach officials who were later jailed for corruption.
He returned to Algeria in 2016 after the cases were dropped — then left again after Bouteflika’s resignation in 2019 that sparked a string of investigations into graft by his officials.
As the Africa Cup of Nations heads into the knockout stages, the reigning champions are heading home early to follow a pattern set at recent editions of the tournament.
Algeria were unceremoniously dumped out on Thursday, Riyad Mahrez missing a penalty in a 3-1 defeat against the Ivory Coast before a delirious crowd in Douala as they finished bottom of their group with one point.
Djamel Belmadi’s team arrived in Cameroon on a 34-game unbeaten run and were naturally one of the favourites to win the title. Instead, the Fennec Foxes depart with their tails between their legs.
It has been notoriously difficult for teams to retain major international titles. No side has successfully defended the World Cup since Brazil in 1962, while Spain in 2012 are the only nation to have retained the European Championship.
In Africa, the Cup of Nations might be held more often and now features 24 teams after its expansion for the 2019 edition, but the reigning champions have a habit of stumbling at the finals.
Since Egypt won a third consecutive AFCON in 2010, only once have the titleholders made the knockout phase of the following edition.
That was Cameroon in 2019, but they were eliminated in the last 16. Egypt did not even qualify for the tournament in 2012, nor did Nigeria in 2015 after they won the previous edition.
Fans Show Up At Last
Ivory Coast coach Patrice Beaumelle was the assistant to Herve Renard when Zambia won the title in 2012 and he believes that has shown national teams across Africa what is possible.
“It is always difficult to successfully defend the title because it is a coveted trophy and when we won it with Zambia in 2012 that inspired a lot of teams as well,” Beaumelle said.
“Zambia was a great team but not one you would say would-be contenders to win every time. Everyone wants to go far and we don’t know who is going to win it.”
Since the tournament’s initial expansion to 16 teams a quarter of a century ago, whenever the AFCON has been held in North Africa it has been won by a North African team.
However, North African sides have often struggled elsewhere on the continent, with the obvious exception of the Egyptians who notably won in Ghana in 2008 and Angola in 2010.
Belmadi regularly cited the challenging conditions as a reason for his team’s struggles during their games in Cameroon’s economic capital Douala, where temperatures are high and humidity extreme.
After a disappointing start as fans stayed away in droves due to the coronavirus rules in place to attend games in football-mad Cameroon, crowds have increased markedly, with 30,000 in Douala to see Algeria go out.
Minnows Enjoy Their Moment
The knockout stages begin on Sunday with Nigeria — the only side to win all three group games — playing Tunisia in one of the ties of the last 16.
Cameroon, Morocco, the Ivory Coast, Mohamed Salah’s Egypt, and Sadio Mane’s Senegal are through too, but the expanded format has also allowed two minnows to make their mark.
In their first AFCON, the tiny Indian Ocean island nation of the Comoros beat Ghana and qualified for the last 16 as a best third-placed side.
Ranked 132nd in the world and with a majority of players hailing from the Comorian community in France, they play the hosts next.
Gambia are the lowest-ranked national team at the finals, sitting 150th in the world, and yet they qualified from their group with seven points.
“When I arrived in July 2018, Gambia had not won a competitive match in five years,” their Belgian coach, Tom Saintfiet, told AFP this week.
“There was no hope, the team was 172nd in the world. I said I was here to qualify Gambia and everyone thought I was mad.”
Now they face west African rivals Guinea, and their Liverpool midfielder Naby Keita, for a place in the quarter-finals.
It is the fifth time in the last six Cups of Nations that the reigning champions have failed to make the AFCON knockout phase, but there has arguably never been a worse title defence.
“A failure, simple as that,” was how Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi summed it up.
“We never managed to take our chances, right from the start of the competition. Even penalties we had difficulty with. We just weren’t good enough.”
Algeria came to the tournament on an unbeaten run stretching back over three years but they were held by Sierra Leone in their opening match and then lost to Equatorial Guinea to suffer a first defeat in 36 matches.
They would have gone through with a win against an Ivory Coast side already guaranteed their place in the knockout rounds, but that never looked likely.
Their demise was lapped up by the fans at the Japoma Stadium in Cameroon’s economic capital, with the 50,000-capacity ground filling up as the game went on.
By the time the match was over it looked like fans had taken up more seats than the 60 percent capacity limit imposed as part of coronavirus restrictions, and many invaded the pitch in chaotic scenes of celebration.
The Ivory Coast clearly had the backing of the crowd and they will stay in Douala for a heavyweight last-16 tie against Mohamed Salah’s Egypt.
“I am very, very satisfied about what my team has done tonight,” said the Ivory Coast’s French coach, Patrice Beaumelle, who has twice won the AFCON as an assistant coach and had some sympathy for Algeria and their failed attempt to retain the title.
“It is always difficult because it is a coveted trophy and when we won it with Zambia in 2012 that inspired a lot of teams as well.”
Equatorial Guinea through
Equatorial Guinea go through in second place in Group E after defeating Sierra Leone 1-0 in Limbe thanks to a superb first-half strike from Pablo Ganet.
Kei Kamara missed a penalty for Sierra Leone as they go out while Equatorial Guinea will stay in Limbe for a last-16 tie against whoever wins Group F between Gambia, Tunisia and Mali.
The Group E results also ensured that debutants the Comoros go through and play hosts Cameroon next.
The Ivorians conceded a stoppage-time equaliser in their last game to draw 2-2 with Sierra Leone following a comical mistake by goalkeeper Badra Ali Sangare.
He then learned of the death of his father later that night, but he kept his place in the Elephants line-up.
They went ahead midway through the first half at the end of a great move as Pepe cut the ball back for Kessie to finish.
It was 2-0 six minutes before the interval as the unmarked Sangare headed in Serge Aurier’s free-kick.
Algeria did not come out fighting after the restart and they might have fallen further behind before Pepe finished superbly in the 54th minute to make it 3-0.
Mahrez then hit the upright on the hour mark from a spot-kick awarded for a soft foul on Youcef Belaili.
They did get a first goal in over four hours of football when Aissa Mandi turned the ball back across goal for substitute Bendebka to score in the 73rd minute, but were spared extra misery when Sebastien Haller’s late header was disallowed for offside.
Reigning champions Algeria are in danger of an early exit from the Africa Cup of Nations after a shock 1-0 defeat at the hands of outsiders Equatorial Guinea in Douala on Sunday.
Esteban Obiang’s 70th-minute goal gave Equatorial Guinea the victory and brought Algeria’s 35-game unbeaten record crashing to an end.
The 2019 Cup of Nations winners could only draw 0-0 with Sierra Leone in their opening game in Cameroon and are now left needing to beat Ivory Coast in their final Group E outing on Thursday if they are to advance to the last 16.
The Ivorians, who were last continental champions in 2015, were held 2-2 by Sierra Leone earlier and the group remains wide open but with Algeria bottom on just one point.
“Oscar Wilde said if you aim for the moon, you will land among the stars. We wanted to break the world record but we haven’t managed,” said Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi.
“Our unbeaten record is still up there with those of Italy, Argentina, and Germany.
“Everyone was talking about it but now we need to focus on something else, go out and secure qualification.”
Meanwhile, an Equatorial Guinea side ranked 114th in the world and 28th in Africa are now well placed to reach the knockout stages for the third time.
The two previous occasions came when they were hosting the tournament, in 2012 and in 2015, but this time many of the fans in the crowd of almost 12,000 in Douala were supporting the ‘National Thunder’.
Equatoguinean capital Malabo, on the island of Bioko, is a short hop over the Gulf of Guinea from Cameroon’s economic capital.
Few of their fans could have foreseen this result against an Algerian side captained by Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and almost entirely the same as that which won the 2019 AFCON final against Senegal.
“We feel very proud to beat the best team in Africa,” said Equatorial Guinea coach Juan Micha.
Algeria struggled to break down the opposition defence, while both Baghdad Bounedjah in the first half and Youcef Belaili late on had goals disallowed for offside.
The outstanding Iban Edu Salvador came close from long range for Equatorial Guinea in the first half and also created a chance that Luis Nlavo could not finish shortly after the break.
They again came close on a breakaway midway through the second half but it was from the corner that followed that their goal arrived — the delivery from the left was flicked on to the back post where the Spanish-born Obiang tucked it in before running to celebrate with the crowd.
Algeria began their defence of the Africa Cup of Nations title with an underwhelming 0-0 draw against Sierra Leone in Douala on Tuesday, as Riyad Mahrez’s side struggled to break down one of the tournament’s rank outsiders.
Qatar-based winger Yacine Brahimi missed the holders’ best chance early in the second half, when he found himself with just the goalkeeper to beat, only for Mohamed Kamara to hold his shot at the second attempt.
The draw allows Algeria to extend their remarkable unbeaten run in competitive action to 35 games, just two shy now of Italy’s record of 37 without defeat.
However, it also means their chief Group E rivals Ivory Coast can seize the initiative by beating Equatorial Guinea at the same venue on Wednesday.
The heat and humidity of a mid-afternoon kick-off at the Japoma Stadium in Cameroon’s economic capital undoubtedly didn’t help, but Sierra Leone deserve enormous credit for their display in their first appearance at the Cup of Nations finals in 25 years.
“We were up against well organised opponents and the weather conditions were difficult. It was very, very hot and extremely humid,” said Algeria coach Djamel Belmadi.
“We are close to Italy’s unbeaten record which is good. We are unbeaten in three years, but we don’t think about that ahead of every game. We just wanted to win today.”
Ranked 108th in the world, Sierra Leone were bolstered by the presence of former England international Steven Caulker in central defence, while China-based Mohamed Buya Turay was lively on the left-wing.
They can be hopeful of building on this result to advance to the last 16, with the best third-placed sides progressing from the group stage in what is now a 24-team competition.
“We are here to do our thing. Whether we are a surprise in this tournament remains to be seen. I don’t want to get carried away after one game,” said their English-born coach, John Keister.
Sierra Leone were backed by vociferous support inside the stadium, although the overall attendance in the 50,000-seat ground may barely have reached four figures.
Alhaji Kamara, who plays for Danish side Randers, came close with an early snapshot for Sierra Leone, while Turay also tested Rais M’Bolhi in the first half.
Kamara then had an effort disallowed for offside after the break before Brahimi’s gilt-edged miss at the other end.
With Mahrez lacking inspiration, it was left to West Ham United’s Said Benrahma to drag a shot wide late on, shortly after coming off the bench, while Ramy Bensebaini was also denied by man-of-the-match Kamara at the death.
Algeria, who defeated Senegal in the 2019 final, face Equatorial Guinea in their next game on Sunday.
Algerian journalist Rabah Kareche left prison on Tuesday after completing a six-month sentence for “spreading false news”, his newspaper Liberte said.
“Our reporter Rabah Kareche is free again after six months behind bars in Tamanrasset prison” in the country’s desert south, it reported on its website.
An appeals court had sentenced Kareche on October 11 to six months in prison plus six months suspended, a two-month reduction from his original sentence.
His release came as he had already served much of sentence during his trial and appeal.
Kareche was arrested in April after reporting the Tuareg, a Berber minority who have long complained of economic and social marginalisation, had protested over “expropriation” of their historical lands.
He was sentenced on August 12 to eight months behind bars plus four months suspended for “spreading false information liable to damage public order”.
He was also accused of posting reports that could trigger “segregation and hatred within society”.
“I’m the victim of a grave injustice,” Liberte quoted him saying as he left prison.
“I did nothing more than my job as a journalist with professionalism.”
Algeria ranks a lowly 146th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index.
In a late 2018 interview with El Watan newspaper, Ghediri had hit out at speculation that the April election might be postponed and Bouteflika’s mandate extended, suggesting he expected the army to stop any such move.
The comments earned him a rebuke from the defence ministry, which threatened to go to court if rules on the conduct of former military officers were breached.
Bouteflika delayed the April elections indefinitely after the Hirak pro-democracy protest movement broke out in February that year.
Then interim president Abdelkader Bensalah scheduled a new vote for July but the country’s constitutional council cancelled it, citing a lack of candidates.
An election was eventually held in December 2019, with Abdelmadjid Tebboune declared the winner.
Bouteflika died last week, aged 84, while Bensalah died Wednesday, aged 79.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who ruled Algeria for two decades before resigning in 2019 as huge protests engulfed the country, has died aged 84, public television announced.
The former strongman had left office in April 2019 under pressure from the military, following weeks of demonstrations over his bid to run for a fifth term in office.
After quitting, he had stayed out of the public eye at a residence in western Algiers.
The announcement of his death late Friday evening triggered little reaction in the North African country, reflecting how his absence had stamped him out of public interest.
A statement from his successor Abdelmadjid Tebboune noted Bouteflika’s past as a fighter in the war for independence from France and said flags would be lowered to half mast for three days to honour him.
But on the streets of the capital Algiers, many residents told AFP the once-formidable president would not be missed.
“Bless his soul. But he doesn’t deserve any tribute because he did nothing for the country,” said greengrocer Rabah.
Malek, a telecoms employee, said Bouteflika “was incapable of reforming the country despite his long rule”.
Even state broadcasters limited their coverage to the news of his death, without running special bulletins on his legacy.
Sabqpress news website said the funeral would take place on Sunday at the El-Alia cemetery east of the capital where his predecessors and other independence fighters are buried.
There was no immediate confirmation from authorities.
Bouteflika became president of Algeria in 1999 as the former French colony emerged from a decade of civil war that killed nearly 200,000 people.
He went on to be elected for three more consecutive five-year terms, most recently in 2014.
Dubbed “Boutef” by Algerians, he won respect as a foreign minister in the 1970s and then for helping foster peace after the civil war, notably with an amnesty law that prompted thousands of Islamist fighters to hand in their weapons.
“He was welcomed in countries around the world, and the country improved when Bouteflika became president,” said kitchen porter Amer, 46.
Journalist Farid Alilat, who has written a biography of Bouteflika, says that at the height of his rule in the early 2000s, the president had “all the levers of power”.
Crucially, he was backed by the army and the intelligence services.
“He became an absolute president,” Alilat told AFP.
Algeria was largely spared the wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011, with many crediting still-painful memories of the civil war — as well as a boost in state handouts — for keeping a lid on tensions.
But Bouteflika’s rule was marked by corruption, leaving many Algerians wondering how a country with vast oil wealth could end up with poor infrastructure and high unemployment that pushed many young people overseas.
“He had a very comfortable life, even after he was ousted from power. But we have to admit that his legacy isn’t the most glowing”, said carpenter Mohamed, 46.
Ill Health And Protests
In his later years, Bouteflika’s ill health started weighing on his credibility as a leader.
Despite suffering a mini-stroke in April 2013 that affected his speech and forced him to use a wheelchair, he decided to seek a fourth mandate despite growing public doubts about his ability to rule.
His bid in 2019 for a fifth term sparked angry protests that soon grew into a pro-democracy movement known as Hirak.
When he lost the backing of the army, he was forced to step down.
The Hirak mass protests continued, with demands for a full overhaul of the ruling system in place since Algeria’s independence from France in 1962.
Some key Bouteflika-era figures were eventually jailed in corruption cases, including Bouteflika’s powerful brother Said, but the long-sought changes did not happen.
Bouteflika’s successor Tebboune was elected in late 2019 on record low turnout, with the Hirak calling for a boycott.
A referendum on a constitutional amendment seen as aiming to torpedo the Hirak generated even less interest from voters.
But the protest movement was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic and has struggled to regain momentum as the government cracks down on opposition.
According to the CNLD prisoners’ group, around 200 people are in jail in connection with the Hirak or over individual freedoms.
And with the Bouteflika-era old guard still largely ruling the country, the legacy of two decades of his rule is mixed.
“For his entire life, Abdelaziz Bouteflika was driven by two obsessions: take power and keep it at any price,” said Alilat.
“But it was this obsession… that sparked the revolt that drove him from power.”
Algeria’s Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra said Tuesday that his country has severed diplomatic relations with Morocco due to “hostile actions”, following months of resurgent tensions between the North African rivals.
The countries have long accused one another of backing opposition movements as proxies, with Algeria’s support for separatists in the disputed region of Western Sahara a particular bone of contention for Morocco.
“Algeria has decided to cut diplomatic relations with the Kingdom of Morocco from today,” Lamamra announced during a press conference.
“History has shown… Morocco has never stopped carrying out hostile actions against Algeria,” he added.
There was no immediate reaction from Rabat to the announcement.
Algiers’s move came following a review of bilateral relations announced last week as it alleged Rabat was complicit in deadly forest fires that ravaged the country’s north.
Lamamra accused Morocco’s leaders of “responsibility for repeated crises” and behaviour that has “led to conflict instead of integration” in North Africa.
Late last month, Morocco’s King Mohamed VI deplored the tensions between the two countries, and invited Algeria’s President Abdelmadjid Tebboune “to make wisdom prevail” and “to work in unison for the development of relations” between the two countries.
But Algeria’s forest fires, which broke out on August 9 amid a blistering heatwave, burned tens of thousands of hectares of forest and killed at least 90 people, including more than 30 soldiers, further stoking tensions.
While critics say Algerian authorities failed to prepare for the blazes, Tebboune declared most of the fires were of “criminal” origin.
Algerian authorities have blamed the independence movement of the mainly Berber region of Kabylie extending along the Mediterranean coast east of the capital.
Algiers has accused Rabat of backing the separatists.
“The Moroccan provocation reached its climax when a Moroccan delegate to the United Nations demanded the independence of the people of the Kabylie region,” Lamamra said Tuesday.
Last month, Algeria recalled its ambassador to Rabat for consultations after Morocco’s envoy to the United Nations, Omar Hilale, expressed support for self-determination in that region.
At the time, Algeria’s foreign ministry said Morocco thus “publicly and explicitly supports an alleged right to self-determination of the Kabylie people”.
Algerian authorities have also accused the Movement for Self-determination of Kabylie (MAK) of involvement in lynching a man falsely accused of arson during the recent forest fires, an incident that sparked outrage.
Algeria last week accused Morocco of supporting the group, which it classifies as a “terrorist organisation”.
“The incessant hostile acts carried out by Morocco against Algeria have necessitated the review of relations between the two countries,” the presidency had said.
It also said there would be an “intensification of security controls on the western borders” with Morocco.
The border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed since 1994.
Mohamed, a Moroccan bus driver, called Algeria’s latest move “a bad decision”.
“It’s like cutting ties with your next-door neighbour,” he told AFP.
The two North African countries along with Tunisia were united, he added, saying “there are no differences, this happens between governments”.
Algeria’s foreign minister also accused Morocco of leading “a media war… against Algeria, its people and its leaders”.
But Lamamra also said consular assistance to citizens of both countries would not be affected.
Relations between Algiers and Rabat have been fraught in past decades, especially over the flashpoint issue of the disputed Western Sahara.
Morocco considers the former Spanish colony an integral part of its kingdom, but Algeria has backed the Polisario movement which seeks independence there.
A normalisation deal between Morocco and Israel in December triggered fresh tensions between Rabat and Algiers because the US recognised Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara as part of the accord.
Lamamra on Tuesday accused the Israeli foreign minister of “senseless accusations and veiled threats” after Yair Lapid expressed “worries about the role played by Algeria in the region”.
On his first visit to Morocco since the countries normalised ties, Lapid said his concerns were based on fears Algeria was “getting close to Iran”, as well as “the campaign it waged against the admission of Israel as an observer member of the African Union”.