Editor's Note: This post was written by Enough Project intern Tomas Husted and Policy Associate Holly Dranginis.
On June 2, the family of murdered Congolese human rights activist Floribert Chebeya filed a lawsuit in Senegal accusing a Congolese police officer of participation in the 2010 killing of Chebeya and his driver, Fidele Bazana. The new charges, filed on behalf of the victims’ relatives by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), a Paris-based NGO, are a welcomed development in an otherwise troubling series of events following Chebeya’s death. Congolese authorities should properly investigate and prosecute these crimes and ensure the families and supporters of the case are protected from intimidation and attack.
Before his murder, Chebeya served as director of the Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless), one of Congo’s leading human rights organizations, regularly exposing abuses committed by the Congolese government and security forces. According to Human Rights Watch, his heroic efforts to seek truth on issues like prison conditions and military corruption were often met with threats from Congolese authorities. On June 1, 2010, Floribert Chebeya was summoned to the office of the Inspector General of the National Police, General John Numbi, for a meeting. He left for Numbi’s department office at the end of his workday and was last heard from at 9 P.M., when he alerted his wife that he was still waiting to meet with the general. His body was found in the back seat of his car the following morning. An independent autopsy conducted by Verilabs, a Dutch firm, could not establish cause of death. The body of Chebeya’s chauffeur, Fidele Bazana, was never found.
The international community immediately pressed for a thorough inquiry into the deaths and the United Nations even offered to provide technical investigation assistance to Congolese authorities. But with very little action, international advocates have become suspicious. "Floribert Chebeya was killed in circumstances which strongly suggest official responsibility," U.N. investigator for extrajudicial executions Philip Alston said in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2010. Last month, independent sources in eastern Congo told the Enough Project that prosecutors tried to summon General Numbi to give testimony, but protocol didn’t allow it because his rank was higher than those administering the trial. Over 50 human rights organizations along with the United Nations, Britain, and the US Department of State have called for an independent investigation.
Widespread demands for justice were temporarily answered with the arrest of several officers in the days following the discovery of the body. After a lengthy stall, prosecutors finally secured convictions in July 2011 for five of the eight accused. Those were soon appealed and the review process has not progressed since November 2012, when the families of the victims demanded that three of the officers, previously charged in absentia, be present for the appeal process. A May 2013 request by the civil parties to refer the case to the Constitutional Court was met with yet more delays, and the case has remained dormant ever since.
Now delayed for two years, a new development in the case hit headlines last Monday: families decided to file a criminal complaint against one of the accused in Senegal. Taking advantage of a Senegalese law which allows current residents to be tried for crimes committed in other countries, the families in tandem with the FIDH are pursuing charges against Paul Mwilambwe, a senior officer who fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Senegal following Chebeya’s death. According to Reuters, this law was first used last year to begin prosecuting former Chadian president Hissene Habre for war crimes committed during his rule from 1982-1990.
According to news sources, Mwilambwe’s trial is already progressing. On Saturday, June 7, Congolese radio network Radio Okapi reported that a Senegalese judge declared the officer fit to stand trial in Senegal. In light of these developments, the international community must renew its calls for justice for the murders of Chebeya and Bazana. In addition to supporting criminal proceedings against Mwilambwe in Senegal, advocates should press for prosecution within the Congolese judicial system and adequate protection for victims and witnesses. Four years after the death of a leading human rights defender, the pursuit of justice for his murder must not be allowed to stall yet again.