(Kinshasa) – The Democratic Republic of Congo government should reopen its investigation into the 2010 double murder of the leading human rights defender Floribert Chebeya and his driver, Fidèle Bazana, following new revelations about the case. Amid allegations reported by international media outlets that the murders were carried out on the orders of the police chief at that time, Gen. John Numbi, Human Rights Watch called for a credible, impartial, and independent inquiry.
On February 8, 2021, in radio interviews with Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Deutsche Welle, two Congolese police officers in exile admitted to taking part in the murders of Chebeya and Bazana on the premises of police headquarters on June 1, 2010 and provided a detailed account of the murder. At a meeting in April 2019, President Felix Tshisekedi personally told Chebeya’s wife and human rights groups that he was committed to conducting an impartial investigation into the murder.
“President Tshisekedi should put his words about investigating the Chebeya murder into action,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The latest revelations show the need for a new inquiry and present the best chance to see that justice is done.”
On June 1, 2010, Chebeya received a telephone call asking him to attend a meeting at General Numbi’s office. The next day, the police said that Chebeya had been found dead in his car in the Mont Ngafula area of Kinshasa, the capital. The body of his driver, Bazana, is still missing.
Speaking to RFI and Deutsche Welle from an undisclosed location abroad, the former police drivers Hergil Ilunga and Alain Kayeye revealed details about the plan to kill Chebeya and how it was carried out. They alleged that police officers asphyxiated Chebeya and Bazana, one after the other, in different police vehicles at the police headquarters.
They admitted to taking part in the murders and covering them up on the orders of Col. Daniel Mukalay, then the police intelligence chief, and Christian Ngoy, then the commander of the feared Simba battalion. The two former drivers said that both senior officers were acting upon Numbi’s instructions.
Kayeye alleged that Bazana was buried at a property of the Kinshasa military police commander at that time, Col. Zelwa Katanga, who has since been promoted to general. Katanga denied the allegations in an interview with RFI.
Ilunga and Kayeye said they would be ready to face justice if their safety were guaranteed. They claimed to have fled Congo in late 2020 for fear of their lives as Numbi was allegedly looking to kill them.
Chebeya was the director of one of Congo’s largest and most respected human rights organizations, the Voix des Sans Voix (Voice of the Voiceless), based in Kinshasa. He was among Congo’s most vocal human rights defenders, regularly exposing abuses by the country’s security services and successive governments over many years. He was threatened and intimidated repeatedly by Congolese authorities because of his work.
Following a widely criticized trial by a military court – with a first verdict in June 2011 and an appeal decision in September 2015 – four police officers were found guilty of murdering Chebeya and Bazana. Ngoy, along with Paul Mwilambwe and Jacques Mugabo, were tried in absentia and sentenced to death. Mukalay, the highest-ranking officer on trial, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and is currently serving his sentence at Kinshasa’s central prison. The military court also found the Congolese government at fault and ordered it to pay damages to the families of both victims.
When the trial began in November 2010, Numbi, then police inspector general, was presented to the court as a witness even though he was widely suspected to be behind the murders. In 2014, one of the fugitives, Mwilambwe, resurfaced in Senegal, where he accused Numbi of orchestrating the murders. Senegalese authorities opened an investigation and Mwilambwe was indicted in January 2015. But the proceedings stalled, and the investigation is ongoing in Senegal. Mwilambwe, a presumed key witness, has since moved to Belgium and has also said he was ready to stand trial.
On September 3, 2020, Ngoy was arrested in Lubumbashi and immediately transferred to Ndolo military prison in Kinshasa for possession of illegal weapons. Following his arrest, Congolese human rights organizations said that the authorities should reopen the Chebeya case.
Chebeya had been investigating the use of lethal force by police under Numbi’s command. Following the international outcry when Chebeya was found dead, Numbi was suspended on June 5, 2010 but he was never investigated or prosecuted. The United States and the European Union sanctioned him in December 2016 for his role in the government’s political repression. However, in 2018 then-President Joseph Kabila appointed him to the highest military rank, inspector general of the army. In July 2019, under Tshisekedi’s presidency, he was removed from his position.
On February 9, 2021, Annie Chebeya, Floribert Chebeya’s wife, told RFI, “Today, for the first time, my children and I have been listening to the truth that we have always been waiting for… I ask the Congolese judiciary to start the trial from scratch.”
Following these new revelations, over 100 Congolese human rights groups called for the immediate arrest of Gen. Numbi and the reopening of Chebeya’s case. Ambassadors in Congo from the EU, Belgium, and the US have also all publicly backed reopening the inquiry. The United Nations Joint Human Rights Office said it was “available to assist the judiciary in shedding light on the despicable murder of Chebeya and Bazana.”
“The Chebeya and Bazana families have yet to learn the full truth and obtain justice for the gruesome killings of their loved ones,” Fessy said. “With these new revelations, the Congolese government needs to act. The judiciary should provide safe conditions to hear those who have come forward while General Numbi and other senior officials implicated in the murders should be fully and fairly investigated.”
This post was originally published on Human Rights Watch News.