Cameroon jails 9 former state officials for fraud

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YAOUNDE, Sep 27 (Reuters) A court in Cameroon jailed nine former state employees for between 15 and 35 years today for embezzlement in a second high-profile case against corrupt members of veteran President Paul Biya's ruling party.

A large group of senior state officials were arrested in February 2006 in a crackdown on graft that Biya ordered under pressure from international donors concerned by widespread corruption in the central African country.

A magistrates court in the capital Yaounde jailed Gilles-Roger Belinga, former general manager of the state-owned Societe Immobiliere du Cameroun (SIC) who is a senior member of Biya's Cameroon People's Democratic Movement (CPDM) for fraud and embezzling 3.7 billion CFA francs (8 million dollars).

Presiding Judge Nnomo Zanga said: ''We hope this case serves as a deterrent to other people in whose hands state property has been entrusted to manage in the general interest, but who very often mistake them for their personal property.'' Ahmadou Ousmanou, SIC's fugitive former administration and finance director, was sentenced in absentia to 35 years in jail.

Two other former company officials were jailed for 25 years and five more received terms of 15 years for complicity in embezzlement of public funds, corruption and fraud.

The court also ordered the nine to pay the company collective damages of 4 billion CFA francs, and ordered the confiscation of all their property.

Defence lawyers said they would appeal the sentences, which they regarded as too heavy for first offences. Prosecutors said they would appeal too, saying the sentences were much lighter than the 70-year terms they had requested.

In June, Emmanuel Gerard Ondo Ndong, the former general manager of local council support fund FEICOM and a member of the CPDM's highest body, the political bureau, was convicted of embezzlement, corruption and fraud and jailed for 50 years.

Cameroon, which Biya has ruled for a quarter of a century, was ranked the most corrupt country in the world in 1998 and 1999 by Berlin-based graft watchdog Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

Since then Cameroon has crept off the bottom, ranking 138 of 179 nations in the latest table published yesterday, but a joint mission from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank said last week there was more work to do in tackling corruption.

Cameroon's economy dominates the six-nation Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC), but in spite of oil reserves, a thriving regional port and cash crop agriculture, 42 percent of its 17 million people survive below the poverty line.

Reuters KK VP0043

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