Glimmer of Hope for Justice

Activists believe local trial may be step forward for greater judicial independence.

Glimmer of Hope for Justice

Activists believe local trial may be step forward for greater judicial independence.

Friday, 25 September, 2009
The case of a rail worker accused of insulting the head of state but subsequently released is being highlighted by NGOs to show that the judicial system in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, can be made to work effectively and independently.

Since he was released on June 5, Mulumba Kapepula, an employee of the national railway system, has been free to go about his business without retribution or intimidation, say local activists.

Judge Costa Lupamba, who ordered his release, also says that he has received no problems after passing what he considers a fair verdict.

NGOs are pointing to this case to show that, contrary to widely-held beliefs, Congolese justice can be kept separate from the executive power.

“This constitutes a significant step towards the independence of the Congolese magistracy,” Fabien Mayani, a local human rights lawyer, said. “It shows that, with a little bit of good will, many things can be changed in our country.”

But there remains some disappointment that not enough is being done to rein in the country’s notorious secret police force, ANR, which was responsible for Kapepula’s arrest on March 16.

Kapepula claims that he was tortured while in jail, which seriously damaged his health.

Mayani says that those responsible for these human rights abuses should be held to account.

“Following Kapepula's acquital, my wish is that all those who tortured him whilst he was being held by the ANR are prosecuted,” Mayani said. “If this is done, I would say that the Congolese magistracy had chosen to change and to become really independent from the executive power.”

Kapepula was arrested following comments that he made at a demonstration, in which he accused the government of attatching greater importance to the players of the national football squad than workers of the Congo National Rail Company, SNCC.

He said that, while public workers in many sectors have not been paid for three years, the government of Joseph Kabila has been lavishing rewards, including brand new cars, upon professional football players.

Judge Costa Lupamba from the Peace Tribunal in Kampemba, where the trial was held, said that there was no evidence to support the allegation that the defendent had insulted the head of state.

“You need evidence to sentence someone,” he said. “With respect to the Kapepula case, there were several witnesses who claimed he insulted the head of state publicly, but when one looks at his comments, one finds that there is no evidence of this. One cannot sentence someone on the basis of rumours.”

Lupamba claims that he acted with full independence, and that there was no pressure on him, from any party, to deliver a verdict that was anything but fair.

Alain Kyale, a lawyer for Kapepula's defence team, said that the decision represented a big step forward for judicial independence in the DRC.

“Usually, when someone is charged with insulting the head of state, they are thrown directly into jail without a proper trial being held,” he said. “But the Kapepula case shows that, up to a certain point, the judge can render his verdict according to his conscience.”

Defence lawyer Rey Kayombo added that, logically, it was right not to sentence Kapepula, since the statements of witnesses were contradictory and the prosecution could not produce any firm evidence to back up the charges.

For all this optimism, though, observers acknowledge that much remains to be done in order to establish a truly independent justice system in DRC.

“There is still a long way to go to make Congolese justice impartial,” Mayani, the human rights lawyer, said. “I would like to take the opportunity to call on magistrates to avoid politicising the prosecution which, even without evidence, often tries to have the accused sentenced - even more so if he’s from a different political movement from the chief of state.”

International NGOs have also been praising the verdict, but with the same measured caution that Mayani expresses.

"We were worried about the politically motivated character of the trial and, in view of this, we feared that the tribunal would face significant pressure to condemn him,” said Alexandra Kossin, a programme manager at the World Organisation Against Torture, known by the French acronym OMCT.

“Fortunately, though, this wasn't the case. But, in light of other trials that are still on-going, and upon which political pressure is being brought to bare, there remains a long way to go before we can say that the DRC has a functioning and fair justice system," she said.

Heritier Maila is an IWPR-trained reporter.
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