A court in Algeria on Thursday upheld hefty prison sentences against two former prime ministers who served under ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, a judicial source said.

The judgement confirmed sentences of 15 years for Ahmed Ouyahia and 12 years for Abdelmalek Sellal, originally handed down in December 2019, the source said.

The two were convicted in a corruption trial focused on the country's auto sector and the covert financing of an aborted 2019 re-election bid by the ailing Bouteflika, who resigned in April that year amid mass protests.

The two men were retried after the supreme court in November annulled their earlier convictions following an appeal.

During the retrial in early January, Ouyahia admitted to receiving gold bars from Gulf donors then selling them on the black market, Algeria's official news agency reported.

He confessed to selling 60 gold ingots for a total of 350 million dinars (around $2.5 million) and holding the proceeds in his bank accounts, the official APS news agency reported.

Ouyahia said he had previously kept quiet about the matter so as "not to undermine the relations between Algeria and certain friendly countries".

The automobile scandal, in which several businessmen were also convicted, cost the public purse an estimated 128 billion dinars (about $1 billion today).

Two former industry ministers, Mahdjoub Bedda and Youcef Yousfi, convicted in the same case, had their sentences reduced from 10 years each to two years and three years respectively, the same judicial source said Thursday.

Ouyahia (L) and Sellal were the first high-profile Boutelika-era officials to go on trial after his resignation in the face of mass protests
Ouyahia (L) and Sellal were the first high-profile Boutelika-era officials to go on trial after his resignation in the face of mass protests AFP / RYAD KRAMDI

Ali Haddad, a construction mogul and former head of Algeria's main employers' organisation, saw his sentence reduced from seven years to four years, although he has been convicted in other cases.

Ouyahia was prime minister four times between 1995 and 2019. Sellal served for five years until 2017 and managed four of Bouteflika's election campaigns.

Their trial in December 2019 was the first in a series of high-profile corruption cases launched after Bouteflika resigned after 20 years at the helm.

It was also the first time since Algeria's independence from France in 1962 that former prime ministers had been put on trial.

But many observers see the trials of former political figures and businessmen close to Bouteflika as little more than score settling among the elite rather than a reflection of meaningful reform.

The Hirak protest movement which forced the autocrat's resignation kept up vast anti-government demonstrations long after he left office, only stopping last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A prisoners' rights group says more than 90 people, including activists, social media users and journalists, are currently in custody in connection with the movement.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune, another former prime minister under Bouteflika, became president in late 2019, in a poll boycotted by the protesters. Official data put the turnout at only around 40 percent.

Tebboune is currently in hospital in Germany, after suffering complications related to his infection with coronavirus late last year.