DR Congo court sentences dozens to death over UN experts’ murder but unanswered questions remain

By Jean-Pierre Afadhali

Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp. © Instagram/Zaida Catalán; John Sharp

Last Saturday 29 Jan. a military court in DR Congo sentenced 51 people to death over the killing of two United Nations’ experts Zaida Catalan, a Swede and Michael Sharp, an American who were assassinated while investigating armed conflict in Kasai province nearly five years ago.

Ms. Catalan and Michael were killed while investigating violence between government forces and an armed group called Kamwina Nsapu in March 2017. They were stopped by armed men and marched into a field to be killed, according to media reports.

Despite the end of the high profile trial that took years and the sentencing of dozens of people to death, some remain sceptic over the trial as answered questions over the assassination that shocked the world remain. Minister for Foreign Affairs of Sweden Ann Linde said via Twitter that she notes the verdict in the case of heinous murder saying it can be appealed and opposed the death sentence.

“Sweden strongly opposes the use of death penalty in all circumstances without exception”. According to Linde, it is crucial that investigation concerning others involved continues to further uncover truth and bring justice. “We encourage DR Congo authorities to fully cooperate with the UN mechanism.”

Some observers said the trial did not shed the light on the murder especially the role of government agents and three Congolese victims who accompanied UN experts. One Congolese victim was an interpreter; the others were two motorcycle operators who drove UN experts to the field.

Jean-Mobert Nsenga, a researcher at Amnesty International hopes one day the truth about the murder will be known.

The 49 convicted to death are mainly former militia members from ‘Kamuina Nsapu’ sect. Colonel Jean de Dieu Mambweni who is accused of conniving with militias in a trap by sending UN experts to unsafe field and having armed assassins has been sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Mr. Nsenga stated that there are many unanswered questions about the high profile murder focusing on Congolese victims. Nsenga was quoted as saying “Congolese justice has never really taken an interest in their fate (of the three Congolese). There were reports at one point of a grave they were buried in, but justice never went further to find out what their fate had been.”

We hope that with the political will, at the highest level in the DRC, if not from the current president, perhaps from other leaders in the future, this trial could be reopened, added the Amnesty International researcher

The bodies of victims were found in a village on March 28, 2017, 16 days after they went missing. Congolese officials have blamed the killings on the Kamuina Nsapu armed group.

Unrest in Kasai province was sparked by the killing of a local traditional chief. According to media reports, about 3,400 people were killed, and tens of thousands of people fled their homes, before the conflict ended in mid-2017.

During the trial prosecutors demanded death sentence against 51 of 54 accused, 22 of accused were tried in absentia. The charges they faced include “terrorism”, “murder”, “participation in an insurrectional movement” and “the act of a war crime through mutilation”.

Catalan’s sister, Elisabeth Morseby, criticized the case after the verdict saying that testimony in the case was of dubious reliability given how much time the defendants had spent together in prison and stated the conviction of Mambweni was a cover-up.

Morseby told Reuters News agency that “In order for the truth to emerge, all suspects, including those higher up in the hierarchy, need to be questioned, which has not yet been done”.

Insecurity remains one of key challenges the mineral-rich country faces especially in the troubled Eastern provinces. Recently security forces arrested suspects in the murder of Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio, one of most recent high profile assassination in the volatile region.

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