Congo probing 'violent death' of judge in landmark graft trial

FILE PHOTO: Vital Kamerhe, leader of the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC) party, attends a meeting in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, December 28, 2018. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Democratic Republic of Congo’s justice ministry said it had launched a murder investigation after an autopsy found the judge overseeing a landmark corruption trial of the president’s chief of staff had died from violent blows to the head.

Raphael Yanyi, who was presiding over the trial of Vital Kamerhe, once a close strategic ally of President Felix Tshisekedi, died on May 26 from what police at first reported was a heart attack.

An autopsy has since shown “he died a violent death, due to the blows of sharp points or knife-like objects, which were thrust into his head,” Justice Minister Celestin Tunda Ya Kasende told Reuters.

Yanyi’s body also showed signs of “toxic substances in non-lethal doses,” the justice ministry said in a separate statement announcing the launch of an investigation into the death.

It is the latest dramatic twist in a case that has gripped the Central African nation. Kamerhe, a top power-broker in Congolese politics for decades, is the most high-profile politician to have ever faced graft charges.

After his death, Yanyi was replaced at the head of the three-judge tribunal and Kamerhe’s trial has continued.

On Thursday prosecutors asked the court to sentence Kamerhe to 20 years in prison for his alleged role in the embezzlement of more than $50 million of public funds.

Kamerhe, who made a pact to back Tshisekedi in a 2018 election in the expectation of succeeding him, has denied all accusations of wrongdoing in the government’s flagship building project known as the 100 days programme.

Reporting by Stanis Bujakera; writing by Hereward Holland; editing by Mark Heinrich