Reporters Without Borders is very worried about death threats that were sent anonymously by SMS message on 17 and 19 April to four independent observers who are monitoring the appeal hearings of four people convicted of the June 2007 murder of journalist Serge Maheshe in the eastern city Bukavu. The appeals are being heard by a Bukavu military court.
“The harassment of these four observers, whose work is essential for the truth to emerge, is completely unacceptable and very disturbing,” the press freedom organisation said. “There are people who from the very outset have done everyone possible to prevent justice being done in this case and their actions are going from bad to worse. The government needs to finally take this seriously. It has the means of identifying and punishing those responsible for these threats. It must be done without delay.”
The four observers are Dieudonné Sango, vice-president of the Congo Provincial Network of Human Rights Organisations (Reprodhoc), Jean-Paul Ngongo of the NGO “Voice of Those Without Voice and Without Freedom,” lawyer Jean Bedel of the Congolese Institute for Justice and Peace (ICJP) and Sophie Roudil, Bukavu representative of the NGO International Protection.
All four received the same SMS message shortly after 8 pm on 17 April from the mobile number +243 85 32 10 208. It said: “Don’t worry. He who laughs last laughs longest. Those who have done so much to discredit this trial will pay for its outcome with their own blood. We are in the Congo. Be seeing you.”
The message’s four recipients are observing the appeal hearings that have been conducted in an very questionable manner since 6 February. They are part of an independent collective of 30 local organisations which is backed by International Protection and which issues a note after each hearing detailing the anomalies and irregularities that have constantly been observed.
The notes issued by the observers have been widely reported in the Congolese news media. During the 19 and 26 March hearings, they elicited angry comments from the presiding judge about “pointless” pressure on the court. The chief prosecutor, Capt. Dieudonné Kabembe, has warned the observers that they risk being prosecuted for “attacking the judiciary.”
After the four observers filed a complaint about the threatening SMS message, three of them - Sango, Ngongo and Bedel - received another one on 19 April. It said: “Complaint? A counter-attack? Hum !!! OK. The strongest will win. It is just a question of time. The die have been cast. Good luck.” Roudil meanwhile got a message saying: “With all respect, you are RESPONSIBLE for what will HAPPEN.”
The news editor of UN-backed Radio Okapi’s regional office in Bukavu, Maheshe was gunned down as he was leaving a friend’s home in a residential district of Bukavu at around 9 p.m. on 13 June 2007. He was about to get into his UN-marked car when he and two close friends were approached by two men in civilian dress armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, who ordered them to lie on the ground. One of them shot Maheshe twice in the legs and three times in the chest.
Aged 31, Maheshe had been working for Radio Okapi since 2002 and had become one of the leading members of the local press community.
Two men with a history of petty crime, Freddy Bisimwa Matabaro and Mugisho Rwezangabo Mastakila, were sentenced to death by a Bukavu military court on 28 August 2007 for Maheshe’s murder. To widespread stupefaction, the court at the same time also passed the death sentence on the two friends of Maheshe who were with him at the time, Serge Muhima and Alain Mulimbi Shamavu.
The court based its convictions solely on the “confessions” made by Matabaro and Mastakila and their testimony that Maheshe’s two friends were the instigators. No motive for the murder and no material evidence was produced. When issuing its verdict, the court acknowledged that many aspects of the case were unclear.
In a letter dated 8 September 2007, Matabaro and Mastakila accused two military judges of bribing them to say they shot Maheshe at the behest of his two friends. They claimed in the letter, a copy of which is held by Reporters Without Borders, that the two judges provided them with evidence to support this story and promised them they would be allowed to travel to South Africa and would receive a regular income.