Algeria targets tycoons as it takes action against corruption

Corruption among public figures is a major complaint of the masses of protesters who helped drive longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika from power.

ALGIERS - Algerian authorities are embarking on a "Clean Hands" campaign aimed at rooting out corruption that has been linked to top tycoons and current and former government officials.

Corruption is a major complaint of the masses of protesters who helped drive longtime leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika from office earlier this month, often chanting "You have ruined the country, gang of thieves!" New protests are scheduled for Friday.

Several influential Algerians have been questioned or arrested in recent days. Among them is Issad Rebrab, head of Algeria's biggest private conglomerate Cevital, who is suspected of possible customs-related violations, according to prosecutors. Rebrab tweeted that he went in voluntarily for questioning.

Rebrab had backed the anti-Bouteflika protests that ultimately forced the president's April 2 resignation, and his Cevital company said it was "astonished" by his arrest.

Others targeted include a legislator accused of accepting bribes from a Chinese company, three brothers and Industry Ministry officials suspected of influence trading.

Algerian authorities apparently intent on clearing away two decades of cronyism following the ouster of Bouteflika have also reopened an investigation against an ex-energy minister close to the former president, according to state media.

Chakib Khelil, 79, who was energy minister for 10 years until he quit the government in 2010, faces renewed accusations of corruption that he had beat a few years ago, the APS news agency reported.

News of the investigation against him adds to the arrests this week on graft charges of the tycoons and officials with links to Bouteflika.

Khelil, who holds Algerian and US nationality, fled to America when he was charged with financial malfeasance along with the head of Algeria's state oil company Sonatrach and several of its top executives.

While the Sonatrach CEO and executives were convicted, Khelil was cleared of charges that he was involved in receiving "commissions" from Italian oil giant ENI for Algerian contracts, and he returned to Algeria in 2016.

But Algeria's supreme court on Wednesday said it had received "two prosecution briefs" against Kehlil "and his accomplices," APS reported.

One brief had to do with a "violation" of laws regulating capital transfers abroad, and the second was about "two contracts by the Sonatrach company with two foreign companies in violation of the law."

The development came one day after the head of Sonatrach, Abdelmoumen Ould Kaddour, was fired and replaced on the orders of the country's interim president Abdelkader Bensalah.