Confusion around plight of Joshua French in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The case of Joshua French and his friend Tjostolv Moland, both Norwegians, seems to have received relatively little press coverage. The pair, former soldiers, were condemned to death under military law in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on 3rd December 2009, for the murder of Abedi Kasongo, a driver who was taking them back to the Ugandan border after their touring motorbike broke down. Both men have steadfastedly protested their innocence, explaining that Kasongo was in fact the victim of an ambush. I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons for any lack of hoo-ha is that there is a sense, reading between the lines, that these guys (then employed in private security services) somehow dropped themselves into it? DRC isn’t your average adventure holiday destination after all.

My response to this is SO WHAT? Reading the Reprieve case notes reveals a series of horrific transgressions of justice and human rights which deserve a wholesome challenge. For a start, there is the question of why the two men were held, tried, convicted and condemned to death by firing squad by a military court, in violation of the DRC’s own constitution. The military courts claim, falsely, that this is their right for crimes involving firearms. Undoubtedly the secrecy and disregard for proper legal procedure which has characterised this entire scenario is primarily a result of a complete breakdown in the application of the rule of law in DRC.

Furthermore, the two men were initially asked to pay $500million in compensation. Whether this would be in exchange for their lives is unclear. If so, this brands the prevailing justice system of the DRC as little better than banditry. French’s sister is reported as confirming that the two men were not engaged in any military capacity at the time of their arrest, and alleges they were set up by the Congolese government for the purposes of extortion. The Norwegian government has apparently stumped up cash to provide recompense to those wronged by the murder, but has denied the allegation of the two men being ‘spies for the Norwegian government’ and refused to pay up for such. Although I am not sure why they have made any concession, when that looks like an admission of culpability.

So what of the farcical and tragic circumstances of the trial and appeal? According to Reprieve,

“French and Moland understood little of what was said when they were sentenced to death, as most of it was held in French, which neither of them understands. During the appeal judgement, the chief judge stopped the interpreter from translating on the grounds that he was slowing things down.”

It should be noted that Reprieve’s involvement in this case stems from the fact that French is half British. Clive Stafford-Smith the Director and Founder of Reprieve said that the ‘legal process’ surrounding this case has

“included torturing Joshua, parading him around town in front of lynch nobs, and forcing him to sign statements under threat of death.”

He added,

” The British government must redouble its efforts to end this nightmare.”

I thought I’d find out some more about what the government are doing – so I sent an email letter to David Milliband, the UK Foreign Minister, to ask for their support. To my pleasure (and surprise), I did receive a reply. Below is the substance of both my letter, and the reply I received yesterday.

Dear Mr Miliband,

I am writing to urge you to make the strongest possible representations on behalf of the British Government to the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to intervene in the case of Joshua French, a British national, who along with a Norwegian friend, has been accused of murder, which both men deny, and sentenced to death. Joshua has today had an appeal against his sentence rejected, in the most nightmarish and improper circumstances, unless $500million can be raised to save his life. The entire process has been a mockery of Human Rights and justice, with the trial and sentence being handed down by Military tribunal; this is in itself in contravention of DCR’s constitution, which states that non-military personnel must be tried in legitimate civilian courts.

Please, please work with the team at Reprieve UK (copied) to do everything you can to understand this case and furthermore, with any discretion at your disposal, to ensure that justice is properly served and Joshua can be brought safely home to Britain.
Whoever said ‘Hell is the absence of Reason’ must have been talking about situations like this; the death penalty is ALWAYS wrong, but to have it meted out under such abhorrent circumstances as these where seemingly nothing rational can be done is not tolerable in our times.

Yours sincerely,
In the hope that something can be urgently done for Joshua.
Kathy Brown

and the reply…

Dear Ms Brown,
Thank you for your email of 03 December 2009 to the Foreign Secretary about Joshua French, who is in detention in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am replying as consular officer for Southern and East Africa.

Our colleagues in Kinshasa are providing consular assistance to Joshua, whose welfare is a priority. They have visited him on numerous occasions since September and are prepared to raise any concerns he may have regarding the conditions of detention with the Congolese authorities.

We do not take a view on innocence or guilt but we do want a fair trial. We closely monitor cases and respond to any concerns raised with us by the British national or their legal representatives.

The British Government is absolutely opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances. We have recently raised our opposition with the Congolese authorities and will continue to do so. We hope that now the death penalty has been confirmed, it will be commuted to imprisonment as we understand that the DRC has signed up to a moratorium against the death penalty. We will make representations to achieve this end at whatever stage and level is deemed appropriate.

We are cooperating with the Norwegian authorities in order to ensure that our representations are consistent and have the best opportunity to achieve our objectives.

Kind regards

Needless to say I was quite interested in this reply on a few counts. Firstly, it sounds as if the primary consideration of the FCO’s local consular office is in ensuring Joshua’s welfare – which is good news, were it not for the fact that his welfare is kinda at its nadir at the point at which he is murdered by firing squad. Secondly, that the Britsh government are opposed to the Death Penalty on all counts and request a fair trial – but they do not say how they are attempting, if at all, to rectify the fact that French did not receive one.

Most puzzling though is this matter of the DRC’s moratorium on executions and the expectation that French and Moland’s sentences will be automatically commuted to life imprisonment. I’ve asked them for clarification on this aspect. The specific reference I have found in this case comes from news as early as December 4th that the Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Stoere was assured during conversation with Alexis Mwamba, his Congolese counterpart, that a current moratorium meant that executions would not now be carried out. I am confused by this, since my understanding of a moratorium is that it is defined as a temporary position. So why this implies automatic commutation to life is unclear and inconsistent. But if true, ’tis worthy of some celebration in that it at least gives Reprieve and the governments of Britain and Norway time to right the wrongs. Wikipedia (which, gratis, should not be taken as gospel) states that the DRC does not currently apply the death penalty. In which case why were the two men sentenced to death in the first place?

The whole thing smacks of blackmail, corruption, bullying and flagrant disregard for human rights to me. I’d like to see more exposure of this in the international press.

January 7, 2010 - Posted by | Clive Stafford-Smith, Congo, death penalty, DRC, FCO, Joshua French, Norway, reprieve

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