Algeria’s biggest bank scandal trial starts

Algeria’s biggest bank scandal trial starts

Khalifa Bank scandal trial opens with its owner Rafik Khalifa, six other defendants on the run.

By Abdellah Cheballah – BLIDA, Algeria, Middle East Online, 8 january 2007

The trial of 104 people linked to Algeria’s biggest publicised financial scandal opened here Monday without the main accused, who is in exile in Britain, and six other defendants on the run.

Police security around the courthouse was tight for the start of the trial in Blida, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Algiers.

Two defendants in hiding, including a former finance minister, said they would not appear in court, claiming in an email to AFP that the trial was a political one and a « travesty of justice ».

The court case concerns the disappearance of more than 3.2 billion dinars (3.4 million euros, 4.5 million dollars) from the accounts of the Khalifa Bank. The bank’s parent group went bankrupt in 2003 as result of the scandal.

Rafik Khalifa, owner of the Khalifa group and once a golden boy of the Algerian business world, is among the defendants but has been in London since 2003 and will be tried in absentia.

An extradition accord between Britain and Algeria signed last July came too late for Khalifa to be sent back to Algiers.

Former finance minister Abdennour Keramane and his brother Abdelouahab Keramane, a former governor of the central Bank of Algeria, sent AFP an email Monday saying they had « decided not to appear before the Blida court ».

« We are convinced the use of the Khalifa Bank affair to press charges against us is exclusively a matter of political considerations and we don’t want to be associated with the travesty of justice being prepared for us, » the email went on.

In a telephone call to AFP, Abdennour Keramane said he was living in hiding abroad, without saying what country he was in. In all, 10 of the accused were not in court on Monday, seven of those, including Rafik Khalifa, on the run.

There are about 150 lawyers for the defendants who face charges including fraud and embezzlement, conspiracy, forgery and corruption. Each faces a maximum 10 years in prison and a heavy fine.

More than 300 witnesses are expected to be heard during the trial before Judge Fetiha Ibrahimi and two assistant judges. Lawyers said the first part of the trial would last several weeks.

The Khalifa bank trial will be followed by others covering accusations of corruption and fraud at other parts of the Khalifa group, including Khalifa Airways and the K-TV television station.

Rafik Khalifa, 40, a son of Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria’s first post-independence president, built up a business empire employing about 20,000 people.

Khalifa Bank, Algeria’s biggest private bank with 7,000 workers, was the heart of the empire which at its height had a total annual turnover of about one billion dollars.

The companies were involved in real estate, construction and car rental.

About 60 defendants, including the managing director of the pharmaceutical firm Saidal, Ali Aoun, were not in custody, but others, among them the former coach of the national football team, Ighil Meziane, were detained shortly before the trial or have, in some cases, been held for more than two years.

The tycoon owner used his wealth to court French film stars such as Catherine Deneuve and Gerard Depardieu, according to Algerian investigators.

The scandal started in February, 2003 when three group managers were arrested at Algiers airport as they allegedly tried to leave with a case containing two million euros.

The group was declared bankrupt in June, 2003. Several thousand small savers in Algeria and France suffered losses.