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African football chiefs acquitted after corruption trial, leave court in tears of joy

FOOTBALL By AFP | May 28th 2019
To the crushing disappointment of fans, the court case led to Sierra Leone being barred from qualifying matches to this year's Africa Cup of Nations [Courtesy]

Two former heads of the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) were cleared of corruption charges on Monday after a high-profile case that led to a bust-up with FIFA.

Ex-SLFA president Isha Johansen, a leading women's football entrepreneur, and former general secretary Chris Kamara had faced an array of charges for misappropriation of funds.

They were replaced in their jobs as the case went ahead -- a move that in October prompted the world's governing body to suspend the SFLA from its ranks on the grounds of government interference.

Sierra Leone's qualifying matches for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations were scrapped. The Confederation of African Football (CAF) then disqualified the country from the qualifying campaign for the tournament, which takes place next month in Egypt.

"Isha Johansen and Chris Kamara are acquitted and discharged on all count charges," Justice Reginald Fynn announced after delivering an hour-long judgment in a jam-packed court in Freetown, the capital.

The pair shed tears of joy and hugged lawyers as thunderous applause erupted.

"Thanks to God, we are free at last," Kamara said, punching the air with his fist.

The defendants were arrested in September 2016 and were then released on bail before being charged on 11 counts in September 2017.

The counts included four primary allegations, of misappropriation of donor funds, conspiracy to commit a corruption offence, misappropriation of public funds and abuse of office.

Alleged misdeeds included the disappearance of $50,000 (44,500 euros) donated by CAF for MRI magnetic resonance imaging tests, and a $5,000 loan from Isha’s husband who signed a sponsorship deal with the national team.

The pair had denied any wrongdoing.

"We lost, now is time to take deep breath and review the judgment for next steps," Sierra Leone's anti-corruption commissioner, Francis Ben Kaifala, said on Twitter.

“That is what due process is,” he said. He did not reveal if there were any plans for an appeal.

FIFA's suspensions spurred government anger and a political emergency for the newly-elected president, Julius Maada Bio.

According to Sierra Leone law, any public official under investigation must step aside pending the outcome of the probe.

The SLFA has a long history of crises linked to match-fixing allegations, corruption and poor leadership.

Fifteen Sierra Leonean players and officials were suspended in July 2014 over suspect matches including a 2010 World Cup qualifier against South Africa.

"I’m happy the corruption case in football is over, FIFA can now remove our suspension," football fan Mohamed Bangura told AFP in Freetown.

FIFA has said its suspension will be lifted "once the SLFA and its recognised leadership... have confirmed to FIFA that the SLFA administration, premises, accounts and communication channels are under their control once again."

Johansen, a 54-year-old entrepreneur, is the first woman to lead the SLFA. She owns her own football club, FC Johansen.

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