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S.Africa sends home Mozambique ex-finance minister

Former finance minister of Mozambique Manuel Chang (pictured January 2019) was arrested in South Africa in December 2018 at the request of US authorities over alleged involvement in fradulent loans to Mozambique state firms (AFP Photo/Wikus DE WET)

Johannesburg (AFP) - South Africa said Tuesday it would send home former Mozambique finance minister Manuel Chang, who has been held since December on a US arrest warrant, to face corruption charges.

"I have decided that the accused, Mr Manuel Chang, will be extradited to stand trial for his alleged offences in Mozambique," South African Justice Minister Michael Masutha said in a statement.

"I am satisfied that the interest of justice will be best served by acceding to the request by the Republic of Mozambique," Masutha said.

Chang, 63, was arrested at Johannesburg airport in December at the request of US authorities over alleged involvement in fraudulent loans to Mozambique state firms worth $2 billion (1.76 billion euros).

Mozambique has accused Chang of receiving $17 million in kickbacks in a scam which creamed off hundreds of millions.

In the US, Chang faces charges of conspiracy to commit electronic fraud, financial security violations and money laundering, and could be jailed for up to 45 years if found guilty.

The South African minister said he had noted that the US submitted its extradition request weeks before Mozambique's one.

After weighing the relevant facts and taking into account the criteria contained in both the extradition treaties between the US and South Africa, and the southern African SADC regional bloc agreement on extradition, he said he had decided to send Chang back home.

US Assistant Secretary of State Tibor Nagy in March said he expected Pretoria to honour an extradition accord it signed in 1999.

- 'Seriousness of alleged offence' -

South African Foreign Minister Lindiwe Sisulu had indicated in February however that Chang would be handed to Maputo because it would be "the easiest thing for everybody".

In reaching his decision, Masutha said he had taken into consideration that the alleged offence was committed whilst Chang was a cabinet minister in Mozambique and also his preference to face trial in his native country.

The minister said he also took into account the "seriousness of the alleged offence" and the "onerous debt for Mozambique as a result of the alleged fraud".

In Mozambique, Chang stands accused of abuse of position and function, violation of budget law, fraud, embezzlement, receiving bribes, money laundering and criminal association.

The charges against Chang relate to loans taken out by the government in Maputo when he was head of treasury between 2005 and 2015.

An independent audit found that a quarter of the loan amount was illicitly diverted.

The US alleges at least $200 million of the loans was spent on bribes and kick-backs.

Mozambique has arrested several other suspects linked to the scandal, including the son of ex-president Armando Guebuza, and senior intelligence officials.

In January, three former Credit Suisse workers were arrested in London and charged with helping to create $2 billion in maritime projects as a front.