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Ex-Zambia president on trial for stealing £25m from country

The trial of the former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba on charges of stealing more than $43m (£25m) from state coffers got under way yesterday before a packed courtroom in the Zambian capital Lusaka.

Mr Chiluba, Zambia's first democratically elected president, is facing 169 counts ranging from theft, abuse of office, abuse of power to being part of a web of corruption stretching from Zambia to Britain, Belgium, South Africa, the United States and the Caribbean. He has denied all the charges.

At least four state witnesses gave evidence yesterday in the trial, which had been delayed for months and dismissed by Mr Chiluba as a political witch-hunt against him by the President, Levy Mwanawasa.

In court yesterday, Mr Chiluba, dressed in a beige collarless suit buttoned up to the neck, constantly sipped from a bottle of mineral water and occasionally read from a small blue Bible as the witnesses - a judge, two former civil servants and a civil engineer - gave evidence against him.

Ironically, it was Mr Chiluba, who retired last year, who plucked Mr Mwanawasa from political obscurity and imposed him as head of the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) against the wishes of many senior MMD officials, who either resigned from the party, defected to other parties or formed their own. Mr Chiluba had unsuccessfully tried to change the constitution to run for a third term.

Soon after taking office, after Mr Chiluba helped him win an election dismissed by the European Union as rigged, Mr Mwanawasa turned against his predecessor, accusing him of fleecing millions from state coffers during his decade-long tenure in power.

Yesterday Philip Musonda, a high court judge, and Austin Mweemba, a retired senior civil servant, explained before the magistrate, Jones Chinyama, how money had been stolen through fraudulent activities.

Mr Chiluba's lawyer, Robert Simeza, said the witnesses were unconvincing. He said that if the state had a genuine case, it should have brought "shocking witnesses" from the onset. The trial continues tomorrow, but Mr Simeza believes it will last for years.

The state also claims millions of pounds were diverted from state coffers into an account at a Zambian bank in London from where it was allegedly embezzled by Mr Chiluba for his personal use and those of his cronies. The former president claims the money in this account was used by the intelligence services to fund essential foreign operations.

A former Zambian chief justice who is alleged to have been bribed, with money from the account, to pass rulings in favour of Mr Chiluba has since quit. Xavier Chungu, a former intelligence chief, who is accused of running the account for Mr Chiluba, is being jointly charged. Mr Chiluba is also accused of paying millions of pounds to a Congolese arms dealer for equipment that was never delivered.

The case has become the cornerstone of President Mwanawasa's anti-corruption crusade, which has won accolades from European donors and President George Bush.

Mr Chiluba, a former bus conductor, became president in 1991, ending the 26-year rule of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's founding leader.