YAOUNDE (Reuters) - A court in Cameroon on Saturday sentenced former presidential hopeful and senior minister Marafa Hamidou Yaya to a 25-year jail term on embezzlement charges related to the botched purchase of a presidential plane in 2004.
The court handed down the sentence early on Saturday morning after a marathon overnight trial. The court handed the same sentence to Yves Michel Fotso, former director of defunct state air transport company CAMAIR.
Hamidou Yaha was minister of territorial administration until he was sacked in December in a cabinet reshuffle by President Paul Biya. He was widely believed to harbor ambitions to succeed the 79-year-old Biya.
Biya, who has been in power since 1982, launched "Operation Sparrow Hawk" in 2006 to combat corruption in the central African nation. The drive has seen several of his former aides brought to court but critics say the anti-corruption campaign has been used to target opponents.
The court in the capital Yaounde found the two guilty of embezzling 24 billion CFA francs ($47.52 million) that was meant for the purchase of the presidential plane called "Albatross".
In letters published after he was arrested in April, Hamidou Yaha denied he participated in any attempt to embezzle public funds and said he was a victim of a political plot.
"Investigations show that the 24 billion CFA francs ... for the purchase of the aircraft were diverted by Yves Michel Fotso for personal interests," the presiding judge said in sentencing.
Fotso was at the time director general of the CBC bank in which funds for the purchase of the plane were deposited.
"The investigations also show that his friend and then secretary-general at the presidency Hamidou Marafa Yaya was well aware of the money being used for personal interest but failed to use his position as a senior administrative officer to prevent the diversion of the money," the judge said.
"The court therefore is very certain that he too (Hamidou Yaya) was involved in the entire process," he said.
Speaking reporters before he was whisked off by security forces, Hamidou Yaya said he was not surprised by the verdict.
"I am very disappointed with the judgment but not surprised because this all has been politicized. But I will file an appeal against my conviction because I am not guilty," he said.
The case has already landed another former minister, Jean-Marie Atangana Mebara and former ambassador to the United States, Jerome Mendouga in jail.
($1 = 505.0100 CFA francs)
(Reporting by Tansa Musa; Writing by Bate Felix; Editing by Rosalind Russell)