The Palestinian anti-corruption court on Thursday convicted Mohammed Rashid in absentia on Thursday of embezzling millions of dollars during the rule of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Rashid and two other businessmen were sentenced to 15 years in jail and ordered to return $33.5 million in stolen funds, in the biggest case against corruption that has festered during the Palestinian Authority’s 20-year history.
An Iraqi Kurd who worked alongside Arafat for more than a decade, Rashid denied the charges and accused Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of leading a witch-hunt against his predecessor’s old allies.
Prosecutors told the court, which was set up by Abbas two years ago, that Rashid profitted from front companies and fled abroad after the death of Arafat in 2004.
His whereabouts are not known, but he is believed to have various homes in the Gulf and Britain. Rashid had accused Abbas and his family of owning assets worth tens of millions of dollars.
Rafiq Natsheh, head of the PA’s anti-corruption commission, denied suggestions that Rashid’s trial was politicized.
“This is only one of several files we are currently working on,” he told Reuters. “Those guilty (of financial wrongdoing) cannot go on undetected.”
"Without doubt the money of the Palestinian people will return to the people, sooner or later," promised Natche, after the conviction.
Anti-corruption campaigners lauded the case as a sign of the maturing of the Palestinian political system, although the probe also appeared to be tinged with political intrigue.
Palestinian watchdogs, while praising growing government vigilance about corruption, expressed concern that investigations are at times being used selectively to settle personal scores.