A mass corruption trial of nearly 50 Angolan army and state security officers opened Tuesday under heavy security on the outskirts of the capital Luanda.

Forty-nine officers — a majority employed during the era of former president Jose Eduardo dos Santos and linked to the presidential security service — face 13 different crimes, including embezzlement and abuse of power.

Prosecutors alleged that their offences cost the state almost $55 million.

A total of 213 witnesses have been lined up to testify against the group.

The officials were accused of having a hand in stashes of foreign and local currency found in boxes and suitcases by Angolan prosecutors earlier last year.

The sheer number of defendants and witnesses means standard courts were too small and the trial was moved to Talatona Convention Centre, located about 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of Luanda.

Around 400 people sat in the gallery to follow the proceedings.

There are more than 30 lawyers defending the accused.

Francisco Muteka, one of the defence lawyers, said he would seek to have the trial stopped “because we found several irregularities at the preparatory instruction of the process”.

Another lawyer, Osvaldo Carlos, complained about the suspension of the defendants’ salaries following their arrest in May.

“The process began and continued with grave irregularities,” he said.

Opposition politician and lawyer Helder Chihuto remarked outside court that the suspects were “small fish”. “The big fish must also be brought to court”.

If convicted the suspects face anything between 15 to 20 years in jail.

President Joao Lourenco came to power in 2017 promising to tackle rampant corruption that took root under his predecessor dos Santos. He is seeking re-election in August.

Dos Santos was reportedly hospitalised in Barcelona last week.

He was accused of appointing family and friends to key positions during his 38-year rule, leaving the southwest African country with a legacy of poverty and nepotism.

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© Agence France-Presse