Congo acquits 300 in genocide trial

A Congolese court on Wednesday acquitted all 15 defendants in the trial over the 1999 murder of about 350 refugees in Brazzaville after finding them not guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

However the court ordered the Congolese government to pay 10-million CFA francs (€15 000, $18 500) to the relatives of 86 of the missing refugees.

Court president Charles Emile Apesse said the government was at fault because it “should have scrupulously organised security measures during the arrival of the refugees”.

However the court dismissed the damages claims of the families of another 102 of the missing refugees.

“It’s a conspiracy. It’s a pity. We are disappointed,” said Vincent Niamankessi, the president of the committee representing the families of the missing refugees.

“We trusted the Congolese justice system in this case because we thought that it could say where we can find our children and organise their funerals,” said Niamankessi, whose son is among the missing.

The committee would continue with their case, taking it to the Congolese supreme court, he said.
An appeal against the verdict must be lodged within three days.

Apesse said the court and the jury, with a majority of at least seven votes, had found that the 15 defendants were not individually responsible for committing war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity in relation to the events in 1999.

The defendants, all senior army and police officials, had been standing trial since July 21 for their suspected role in the disappearance six years ago at Brazzaville’s river port of a several hundred refugees who were returning from the neighbouring

Democratic Republic of Congo where they had fled the previous year due to the civil war in Congo.

The refugees had returned, in May 1999, to Brazzaville’s port from Kinshasa on the other side of the Congo River and were detained on suspicion of backing a militia hostile to the government of President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

Human rights groups and relatives said that 353 of them were never seen again—apparently having been tortured and executed.

One of the lawyers for the families of the missing refugees welcomed on Wednesday the court’s acknowledgement that the government had been at fault in not ensuring the safety of the refugees.

“It wasn’t a victory for one group or another. The justice system did its job,” said Felix Nkouka on national television.

“The essential was done. Some of the civil parties were awarded damages which means there was a fault,” he said.

Lawyers for the families of the missing had complained about political interference in the trial.

But Congo’s constitutional court rejected a complaint that nine of the judges were appointed by President Nguesso in violation of the Constitution.

Some defence lawyers also argued a political motive, claiming the trial was a plot by opponents of the Congolese regime.

The Congolese prosecutor, who dropped the charge of genocide, had asked that seven of the defendants be sentenced to 10 years’ hard labour for crimes against humanity and other offences, while the remaining eight should be acquitted.

The prosecutor also acknowledged that the disappearance of the refugees was “a fact” based on the testimony of many witnesses rather than physical evidence. - Sapa-AFP

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