A death in the Congo

On 18 August, Tjostolv Moland, a 32-year-old former officer of the Norwegian army, was found dead in his prison cell in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His strange case highlights the need to develop the DRC's justice system to end a cycle of impunity and violence.

Kiran Mohandas Menon
5 September 2013
Kinshasa on a hazy day. Flickr/Karin Lakeman. Some rights reserved.

Kinshasa on a hazy day. Flickr/Karin Lakeman. Some rights reserved.

In May 2009, Tjostolv Moland and Joshua French, two former Norwegian soldiers, rented a car to transport them and their broken down motorcycle across the jungle in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were accompanied by the driver, Abedi Kasongo, and two of his employees, who needed a lift home.

A few hours later, Kasongo, the 42 year old driver, lay dead - his body riddled with bullets. The other two Congolese escaped and a manhunt had begun for the two Norwegians, who were being accused of committing the crime. A few days later, both Moland and French were arrested and were charged with the murder of Kasongo, attempted murder of the two accompanying Congolese, possession of illegal weapons, armed robbery and espionage.

These are the basic facts of a case which has attracted international attention. But as to what happened on that moonlit Congolese evening, there are two contradictory versions: the two Congolese claim that Moland and French had an argument with Kasongo, asked him to step out of the car and shot him dead, while the Norwegians explained that he was killed when they were ambushed by bandits in the jungle.

The two men, who had previously worked for private security firms in many African countries, e.g. as security guards in the Gulf of Aden, claimed that they were in the DRC to research setting up their own security company. Because both men were carrying (no longer valid) Norwegian military identification cards when they were captured, the prosecution claimed that they were ‘spying’ for Norway. The Congolese authorities later discovered a rifle, counterfeit IDs and United Nations caps among their belongings, while a confiscated camera contained a picture of a smiling Moland wiping blood, allegedly that of Kasongo, from the inside of a car. Additionally, a weapon belonging to Moland was later reclaimed from the jungle, but since an autopsy was never conducted on Kasongo, it was not possible to conclude whether this was in fact the weapon which caused his death.

In late 2009, Moland and French were produced in a military court and convicted of espionage and murder. Both were sentenced to death.

The case goes international

Since there was an espionage conviction, Norway was ordered to pay around five hundred million US dollars to the Congolese state. Norwegian authorities denied that Moland and French were spying for the country, stating that there was no contact between them and any official agency since 2007. Jonas Gahr Store, the Foreign Minister of Norway at the time, said that Moland and French “were not acting on behalf of Norway and were not tied to Norwegian authorities”.

However, a retrial was ordered after it was discovered that the procedures at the military court were ‘flawed’. In June 2010, French and Moland were tried, convicted and sentenced to death again. But this time, the Norwegian state was ordered to pay around sixty five million US dollars. The sentence was deemed ‘completely unacceptable’ by the Norwegian government, with Store stressing that “Norway was not a party to the case”. Norway, expectedly, did not pay.

On 18 August 2013, Moland was found dead in his cell. He was 32 years old. The autopsy report concluded that he probably took his own life. Reacting to the news of Moland’s death, Espen Barth Eide, the current Norwegian Foreign Minister, stated that the “main focus now was to get French home”, adding that French's return was “more important now than ever”.

Whether the Congolese authorities will concede to a request by Norwegian diplomats to let Joshua French return home is uncertain, and new developments are likely to follow in the next weeks.

Guns for hire?

But this doesn't answer the question of what Moland and French were doing in the DRC. In this regard, a letter allegedly written by Moland while he was in Uganda may hold some answers.

The letter was addressed to Laurent Nkunda, a former General in the Congolese military, and a hugely controversial figure who has been internationally reviled as a war criminal and primarily held responsible for the Nord-Kivu conflict in 2008. This conflict took place in the Eastern DRC province of Nord-Kivu between Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and the DRC military. It displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians and created such a shortage of food and supplies that the UN described it as “a humanitarian crisis of catastrophic dimensions”. Infighting in Nkunda’s rebel faction, also notorious for its mass recruitment of child soldiers, would ultimately lead to the cessation of the fighting and to Nkunda's downfall.

In the letter, Moland described Nkunda as “the right man to lead this massive country into the future it deserves”, while offering his services gathering “field and human intelligence”. “Give me command”, he continues, "and I will be your loyal servant”.

But these plans fell through when Nkunda was arrested in 2009 in a joint Congolese-Rwandan operation, and the former warlord is said to be currently detained in Rwanda. Many observers viewed this as a positive development, especially because Nkunda was largely seen as being aided and furthering the agenda of those attempting to worsen the crisis to destabilise the DRC from abroad. Meanwhile, Bosco Ntaganda, the former Chief of Staff of Laurent Nkunda’s CNDP, recently surrendered at the United States embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali, and is currently under trial at the International Criminal Court.

Considering these elements, it appears that French and Moland were two guns for hire, who found their way into the DRC with the plan of lending their services and experience (Moland had been an officer in the Norwegian army, while French received military training in both Norway and Britain) to one of the country's warring factions. But not much more can be proved regarding their exact intentions.

The bigger picture

Beyond this case, the fact remains that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is easily among the most troubled regions in the world, with both the crimes regularly committed by warring factions and the grotesque suffering inflicted on the people remaining notoriously underreported. The Congolese justice system is weak, and this weakness further fuels a cycle of impunity.

Since the beginning of the Second Congo War (1998-2003), the deadliest in modern African history, more than five million people have lost their lives. Perpetrators of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity have been left unpunished, with several war criminals still reportedly part of the Congolese military.

As warlords, paramilitaries and militias continue to commit brutal crimes, there is little hope that they will one day be held accountable for their actions. Equally discouraging is the fact that, because of the rampant corruption in all sections of the society, there are documented accounts of convicted persons simply buying their freedom.

Aaron Hall, who authored a report titled Time Works against Justice on the Congolese judicial system’s role in promoting this “cycle of impunity”, states that the Congolese justice system suffers from a lack of “capacity, transparency, accountability and resources”, stressing that the “lack of accountability" had fostered "a war that has killed more than five million people”.

In a country that has been suffering from one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent times, prison conditions are unsurprisingly shocking. In 2008, ten people died of malnutrition in the span of a few days in a prison in the East of the country. A team of UN officials visiting the prison found that many more were severely ill and near death. Children were also reported to have been imprisoned in Congolese prisons with adults.

Taking these elements into account, what the future holds for the DRC is uncertain. As for French and Moland's case, as in many others in the recent history of the country, the only certainty is that Abdel Kasongo's and Tjostolv Moland's families have lost a son, husband or father, with little hope of ever getting a satisfying explanation – or justice – for what happened. And that the weakness of the DRC's justice system will only lead to more and more impunity and violence in this troubled region of the world.

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