Three sentenced in Congolese journalist’s murder

New York, May 22, 2008–Three men accused of killing Congolese journalist Serge Maheshe in 2007 were convicted and sentenced to death, while two others were acquitted in a retrial that ended Wednesday. The trial failed to establish a clear motive for the crime, according to news reports and local journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned that key aspects of the case remain unresolved, including a motive and the involvement of possible masterminds.

Maheshe, 31, an assistant editor of the United Nations-backed Radio Okapi, was gunned down on the evening of June 13, 2007, in the eastern border city of Bukavu, in the restive South Kivu province, as he prepared to board a U.N vehicle with two friends. An August 2007 trial had resulted in the convictions of four men, including Maheshe’s two companions. The trial was marred by allegations of irregularities, including charges of inadequate forensic investigation and the prosecution’s sudden abandonment of theories implicating two soldiers as the shooters. An appeal led to the retrial that ended this week.

On Wednesday, the military tribunal overseeing the case upheld death sentences handed down in August 2007 against Freddy Bisimwa and Mastakila Rwezangabo, according to news reports. A new defendant, Patient Bisimwa Sikitu, was convicted and sentenced to death on a charge of criminal conspiracy.

The tribunal overturned the convictions of Alain Mulimbi and Serge Muhima, Maheshe’s companions, according to news reports. The two had been convicted last year on charges of plotting the crime based on statements from the accused gunmen. The two accused gunmen later retracted their accusations in a September 2007 letter from prison.

The letter sparked a controversy that was acknowledged by President Joseph Kabila, who acknowledged “weaknesses” within DRC’s judicial system even as he asserted that the government had “always caught the perpetrators or at least the presumed culprit” in journalist murders, according to press reports.

“We are concerned that once again the judicial process has fallen short of establishing a clear motive for the crime,” said Tom Rhodes, CPJ’s Africa Program Coordinator. “We call on the Congolese authorities to pursue this case to the end. Those arrested should include those who ordered the assassination, not simply those accused of carrying out the crime.”

The retrial, which began in February, was criticized by the U.N. mission in DRC for “many and serious violations of the basic rights to a fair trial,” such as the presumption of innocence and the proper handling of evidence, according to CPJ research. There were reports of death threats against journalists, observers, and lawyers at the retrial, according to local and international media.

Maheshe is among four journalists to be killed in the DRC since 2005. The others were veteran political affairs journalist Franck Ngyke Kangundu , who was slain along with his wife, freelance journalist Bapuwa Mwamba , and photojournalist Patrick Kikuku Wilungula .

Radio Okapi quoted the defense as saying that it would appeal the verdict.