Zimbabwe's former finance minister faces new corruption charges

HARARE, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Former Zimbabwe finance minister Ignatius Chombo faced new corruption charges on Thursday in the clearest example yet of a crackdown on graft by President Emmerson Mnangagwa since he took office last month.

Mnangagwa has said one of his priorities is to fight corruption as he seeks to shore up an economy battered under former leader Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule.

The graft watchdog accused Chombo of criminal abuse of office and said he illegally resettled people affected by a government clean-up operation on privately-owned land in Harare and then demanded a bribe from the owner to remove the people, his lawyer Lovemore Madhuku said on Thursday.

Chombo is facing separate charges of corruption including defrauding the central bank dating back two decades. He was set free on bail a week ago.

He was initially detained by the military when it seized power in “Operation Restore Legacy”, which it said was meant to remove the “criminals” around Mugabe. His lawyer said he was beaten in detention.

Several members of G40, a group allied to Mugabe and his wife Grace, were detained and expelled from the ruling party, including Chombo.

Madhuku said Chombo had been questioned by officials from the independent Zimbabwe Anti Corruption Commission (ZACC) and released on Wednesday night after making a statement.

The watchdog accused Chombo of criminal abuse of office linked to his time as a local government minister in 2005.

Mugabe’s government in 2005 conducted a clean-up of urban slums and destroyed “illegal structures” it said were a haven for criminal activities. The United Nations condemned the operation and said more than 700,000 people were affected.

Chombo denied both charges, Madhuku said.

“It is ridiculous. This is just political harassment,” Madhuku said.

The graft watchdog would have to handover the case to state prosecutors before Chombo is brought to court, Madhuku said. (Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by James Macharia)