Page last updated at 16:36 GMT, Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Sao Tome officials in graft case

Map of Sao Tome

Several former high-ranking government officials have appeared in court in Sao Tome, in the island nation's largest corruption scandal.

But proceedings were adjourned after the defence said the judge should be barred from the "farcical" case.

Millions of dollars from the accounts of a body created in 1993 to manage foreign aid money was allegedly used to pay for cars and election campaigns.

The accused, who include two former prime ministers, deny any wrongdoing.

Among the alleged costs incurred to the now-defunct Gabinete de Gestao das Ajudas, or GGA, was the bill for redecorating the house of ex-Prime Minister Maria das Neves.

She has denied the allegations, saying it is part of a campaign to smear her ahead of presidential elections in 2011.

The defence lawyer said the presiding judge had led a hearing in an earlier stage of the same case, which would be against Sao Tome's constitution.

"This tribunal does not have the credibility to deal with this case," he said, calling it a "farce" and an "embarrassment".

The BBC's Maimouna Jallow in Sao Tome says the accused have defended themselves with a common explanation:

They say they used GGA cash because the government simply did not have enough in its coffers to foot the bill.

But our correspondent adds the corruption allegations could have dire consequences in a country where about 90% of its budget comes from foreign aid.

Note 1633 GMT: In an earlier version of this story, we mistakenly said former Prime Minister Guillherme Posser da Costa was being charged.

In fact those charged wanted to call him to testify in court. We have corrected our story and apologise for the error.

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