Congo Christians oppose death penalty for two Norwegians

By Ecumenical News International
September 17, 2009

Church leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo are urging the government of the central African nation to rescind death sentences pronounced on two Norwegians - writes Fredrick Nzwili.

"This is an issue of great concern to us. We have said this is not good," Bishop Josué Bulambo Lembelembe, the vice-president of the Church of Christ in Congo, told Ecumenical News International last week.

Joshua French, aged 27, who is reported to have both Norwegian and British nationality, and 28-year-old Norwegian, Tjostalv Moland, were sentenced to death by a military court in Kisangani on 8 September 2009.

The two men were found to have murdered their driver, Abedi Kasongo, to have illegally imported military weapons and plotted hostile acts against the DRC. The military court said they were also found guilty of spying on Congo for the Norwegian government.

The sentences handed down in the eastern city included demands that the two men and the Norwegian government pay the DRC US$60 million in damages.

"We as churches ... have been working closely with the Church of Norway," said Bishop Bulambo, who added that his church gets a lot of support from the government of Norway.

Bulambo, whose Church of Christ in Congo includes 62 Protestant denominations, said church leaders and civil society groups had registered strong opposition to the death penalty in a message to the Democratic Republic of Congo's parliament in 2008.

"The parliament rejected the death sentence last year," said Bulambo. "We hope the two will be released."

The death penalty remains on the statute book in the DRC but it is not currently applied and no known execution has occurred since 2003.

French's mother Kari Hilde French told the BBC the two men, who had been working in neighbouring Uganda, went to the DRC in May, intending to stay about a week but their motorbike broke down.

"So they hired a man with a pick-up truck. One night when they stopped they heard shots so they ran into the bush to escape." She added, "They did not dare go to the police or military because of corruption."

Captain Claude Disimo, who headed the military court in Kisangani, dismissed the defence argument offered by the two men and said that Moland had fired the shot that had killed the driver. He said the two men had valid military cards and were therefore "de facto intelligence agents for their country".

Their lawyer Andre Kimbabwe had argued that the weapon the men had was not the one that killed Kasongo and that having a map, compass and global positioning system or GPS did not mean a person was a spy.

Both men are said to have served in Norway's Telemark Battalion, a mechanised infantry unit, but neither had served there after 2007.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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