The ex-health chief, 59, has been accused of stealing $4.3 million (£3.4 million) in public funds made available to him to tackle the Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 2,000 people since August 2018. The virus is highly contagious and causes acute diarrhoea, vomiting and haemorrhagic fever. It spreads through bodily fluids and kills more than half its victims. “The magistrate told him that he was charged with embezzlement. As a former minister, he could not be placed in detention,” said the lawyer, Guy Kabyea, adding that Mr Ilunga was currently under house arrest.
He was taken in for questioning on Saturday, amid suspicions he was planning to flee the country via neighbouring Congo Republic in a bid to evade legal proceedings. He was barred from leaving DR Congo a few days after his first interrogation in late August.
“Unfortunately, police received information about his disappearance with a view to reaching Congo-Brazzaville,” a spokesperson for the national police said.
Mr Ilunga’s lawyers have rejected the embezzlement claim, saying accounts prove that the money was used “exclusively” for the Ebola response.
Foreign donors have given more than $150 million (£120 million) to the Ebola response fund over the past year, though the United Nations says hundreds of millions of dollars more are needed to wipe out the disease.
Mr Ilunga oversaw the handling of the outbreak for nearly a year. He stepped down from his role after he was stripped by the presidency of that responsibility in July, resigning from the government days later.
He was pushed out after openly criticising plans by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to introduce a new Ebola vaccine, citing the risks of introducing an unknown treatment in communities where distrust of Ebola workers is already high.
More than 170,000 people have been given a vaccine manufactured by German pharma giant Merck since the start of the outbreak.
But while the Merck vaccine is tested but unlicensed, the WHO-backed alternative – a Johnson & Johnson drug – is still in the trial investigation stage.
The current outbreak is the second-deadliest in history after more than 11,000 people were killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2013 and 2016.
In July, the WHO declared the epidemic a “public health emergency of international concern” after it spread to the city of Goma, a transit hub of nearly 2 million people bordering Rwanda, and into neighbouring Uganda.
Despite access to effective vaccines and treatments, health workers have scrambled to prevent the virus from running amok in remote and conflict-hit parts of eastern Congo, where local communities are highly suspicious of the response effort.
Violent attacks on Ebola health centres and workers by armed rebels have further hampered the response.
The haemorrhagic fever causes severe vomiting, diarrhoea, and internal and external bleeding. More than half of cases are fatal, with patients generally dying from dehydration and organ failure.