By Dibussi Tande
The Mfoundi High Court this evening, May 3, 2012, found Mr. Atangana Mebara, former Secretary-General at the Presidency, not guilty of three of the five charges against him in the "Albatross Affair", the botched attempt to purchase a presidential aircraft for president Biya.
Frontpage of tomorrow's Le Jour newspaper
The High Court found Mr. Mebara not guilty of the attempt to jointly embezzle $31 million with Kevin Walls, CEO of the London-based Airport Portfolio Management (APM), and Essomba Otele, head of APM’s Cameroon subsidiary, Asset Portfolio Management (APM).
This accusation stemmed from a letter that Kevin Walls sent to Mr. Mebara on June 5, 2003 advising him that GIA, a US-based firm which had received $31 million from the Government of Cameroon to purchase a presidential aircraft, could claim the money as arrears for aircraft it had leased CAMAIR. Mr. Walls suggested that:
"It would be prudent to request immediately the transfer of funds which GIA currently hold to the account of Aircraft Portfolio Management (APM). This way we can assure that the funds belonging to the Presidency are protected against any fallout or potential dispute against Cameroon Airlines."
Mr. Mebara agreed, and authorized APM to attempt to recover the funds from GIA. GIA went bankrupt shortly thereafter and the money lost. The investigating judge concluded even though the plan never came to fruition it was, nonetheless, an attempt to misappropriate public funds because of the plan to transfer the funds into APM’s account and not into the national treasury.
Today, the High Court concluded this charge was frivolous and without merit. As Judge Gilbert Schlick stated in his ruling, "The Head of State explicitly authorized the recovery of these funds... There is no evidence that Mr. Mebara intended to fraudulently withold this money."
The High Court also found Mebara not guilty of jointly embezzling 1.5 billion FCFA, with Kevin Walls and Otele Essomba. This was money which the National Hydrocarbons Corporation had transferred to APM, at the request of the Minister of Finance, MEVA’A M’EBOUTOU, as payment to Ansett Worldwide, a US company that leased aircraft to CAMAIR.
I have the honor of inviting you to transfer the amount of 1, 500, 000, 000 CFA francs to the company APM so that it may transfer a partial payment to the company ANSETT which is a creditor of CAMAIR.
It is highly desirable that this transfer be made as soon as possible.
Even though Ansett World Wide confirmed in writing that it received this money, charges were still brought against Walls, Essomba, and surprisingly, Mr Mebara (in his capacity as chair of the SNH board of directors?). The case against them was largely based on the conclusion of the accounting firm Bekolo & Partners that the documentary evidence provided was “not compliant with standard industry practices” and could therefore "not be taken into consideration.”
Incidentally, another group of experts, Jean Pierre Okalla Ahanda and Paul Emmanuel Tonye, appointed by the investigating Judge to issue a statement on the matter, arrived at a different conclusion: "the documents that were used as a basis for the Camair accounting department to record this transaction... are,.. sufficient to be used for such a record..." Nonetheless, the three individuals were still accused of having colluded with Ansett Worldwide to embezzle 1.5 billion FCFA.
Once again, the Mfoundi High Court considered this charge to be without merit and found the accused not guilty.
Finally, Mebara was found not guilty of jointly embezzling 121 million FCFA, with former Cameroon ambassador to the United States, Mr. Jerome Mendouga. This sum was the remainder of the 720 million FCFA which was wired to the Cameroon embassy in Washington DC, on the orders of Mr. Mebara, to pay for costs related to the lease of the presidential plane.
Mendouga claimed he used this balance to pay embassy bills, refurbish the rundown embassy building, pay embassy creditors, etc.The High Court concluded that since Mr. Mebara did not instruct Mr. Mendouga to use the money for embassy maintenance, he could not be found guilty of embezzlement.
On the other hand, the court found Mendouga guilty of the charges against him because he "sovereingly" decided to use the money for unauthorized purposes, and also failed to produce documentary evidence of these expenses. Mendouga received a stiff 10-year sentence and asked to restitute 125 million FCFA to the state (apparently, exculpatory evidence was handed over to the investigating judge at the beginning of the trial but was misplaced – if confirmed this would be grounds for an appeal.)
Mr. Mebara still has to answer to two charges which are still before the Investigating judge Pascal Magnaguemabe, and which could both earn him lengthy jail sentences:
- An attempt to jointly embezzle 4 billion FCFA with Mr. Ephraim Inoni
- Complicity to jointly embezzle $5 million with Jerome Mendouga
We will revisit these charges in a subsequent posting.
Will Mebara be released?
So will Mr. Mebara be released while waiting for the investigating judge to wrap up his investigation into the remaining two charges? In a post-trial interview, Mr. Mebara’s lawyer, Maitre Claude Assira Engoute, argues that he should, and points out that according to Cameroon’s Criminal Procedure Code, his client should not have been detained for more than 18 months. Section 221 of the code stipulates that:
(1) The Examining Magistrate shall specify the period of remand in custody in the remand warrant. It shall not exceed six (6) months. However, such period may, by reasoned ruling of the Examining Magistrate be extended for at most twelve (12) months in the case of a felony and six (6) months in the case of a misdemeanour.
(2) Upon expiry of the period of validity of the warrant, the Examining Magistrate shall, under pain of disciplinary action against him, order the immediate release on bail of the defendant, unless he is detained for other reasons.
Mr. Mebara has, however, been held in “pre-trial” or provisional detention for close to four years, in violation of the law. Given the tendency of the Cameroonian justice system to ignore or flout the provisions of the code when it suits it, his lawyer believes that it is likely that Mr. Mebara could be kept in custody until the resolution of the last two charges, which could take years…
According to the government daily, Cameroon Tribune, Mebara is still at Kondengui and has been summoned before the investigating magistrate on Tuesday May 8: "Another detention order might be issued tomorrow." Click here for the story.