Accused Congolese coup plotters set free

A crowd gathers in prayer just before the 15 Congolese men, accused of plotting to overthrow President Jospeh Kabila, are released. (Marie Shabaya)

A crowd gathers in prayer just before the 15 Congolese men, accused of plotting to overthrow President Jospeh Kabila, are released. (Marie Shabaya)

There was a festive and political mood outside Pretoria’s High Court on Friday as friends and family awaited the release of 15 of the 20 Congolese men previously accused of plotting to overthrow their head of state, Joseph Kabila, almost two years after their arrest. 

On February 5 2013, following an elaborate sting operation by the Hawks, 19 men were arrested at a farm in Limpopo. Those released say they were told they would spend seven weeks training as “anti-rhino poaching” rangers. But prosecutors alleged that it was a cover for military training needed to carry out the coup.
They denied all charges and pleaded not guilty.

Etienne Kabila, who the Hawks believed to be the group’s mastermind, handed himself over to Cape Town police four days after the Limpopo arrests, making him accused number 20. 

All of the men were charged under the Foreign Military Assistance Act for engaging in “mercenary activity” and rendering “foreign military assistance” as well as collectively conspiring to “commit murder” under the Riotous Assemblies Act.

The National Prosecuting Authority spokesperson Nathi Mncube said: “We stopped proceedings [because] it became apparent that we wouldn’t secure convictions due to a lack of evidence.” 

Thesigan Pillay, lawyer to 14 of the men, calls it “a partial victory”.

Yeoville Pastor, Jules Kilele (in beige jacket) embraces one of the released men. (Marie Shabaya)

Four of Pillay’s clients still remain in custody. They are American citizen James Kazonga, and asylum seekers living in Johannesburg, Lunulu Masikini, Kilele Mukuti and Kabuka Kilele. They, along with Kabila, are believed to be major players in the alleged plot.

Kabila was previously out on bail, but continues with the proceedings.

For now, the families of the released are relieved. They, along with bands of supporters waving Congolese flags and other implements, welcomed the men with dancing and political slogans, “Kabila must go, Kabila must go” and “Tuta Muua (We will kill him)”.

However, the jovial mood won’t last long predicts Marie Muyembi, sister to one of the accused, David Bakajika, and guardian of his two children. “Even though they are out, people don’t trust them. They have been accused of being criminals so who will employ them?”

Her concerns may be premature. After court adjourned, the freed 15 were summoned to the International Committee of the Red Cross compound, just past the Union Buildings, where they say they were offered support with their transition back into society. 

The families of those still behind bars remain hopeful. “I spent the  whole night crying when I heard. I hope my husband will be released after the 26th,” says Abelina Masikini, wife of one of the accused, Lunula Masikini.

Masikini and the four others return to court on January 26.

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