Joshua French death sentence quashed due to unfair trial — yet referred back to the same corrupt military court in the Democratic Republic of Congo

April 22, 2010

The High Military Court in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), today quashed the conviction of British national Joshua French for technical reasons. 

The court identified the fact that the judges had changed mid-trial as the basis for a new trial, but rather than referring the case to the legitimate civilian courts, the military court sent it straight back to the same unfair military appeal court in Kisangani, in remote eastern DRC.

Joshua was not allowed to attend the High Court hearing and his lawyer was prevented from representing him. Both men were hundreds of miles away in Kisangani, while this crucial hearing went ahead without them. Because Joshua’s defence lawyer is based in Kisangani, where Joshua is imprisoned, he relies on UN flights to Kinshasa which must be booked at least five days in advance — a fact that can hardly be unknown to the court, which failed to give Joshua’s legal team adequate notice to attend.

The military appears determined to keep control of the trial, in defiance of the DRC’s own constitution, which clearly states that Joshua and his friend Tjostolv Moland, a Norwegian national, must be tried in the civilian courts. The proceedings in Kisangani have been a mockery of justice, with journalists forced to pay bribes to attend court.

Joshua French and Tjostolv Moland received multiple death sentences on 8 September 2009 for murder and espionage, notwithstanding strong evidence of their innocence. Joshua, who has a Norwegian mother and British father, had been forced to sign a confession after being beaten and subjected to a mock execution.

Reprieve’s Director Clive Stafford Smith said: 

“While the temporary reversal of the death sentence is welcome, this remains a farcical legal process. The DRC authorities should consider allowing Joshua a fair trial in a court with jurisdiction, and let his lawyer show up to the relevant proceedings.”

Joshua is receiving assistance from Norwegian lawyers Morten Furuholmen and Marius Dietrichson, together with Parvais Jabbar and Saul Lehrfreund of the Death Penalty Project and Reprieve. For more information please contact Katherine O’Shea at Reprieve’s Press Office katherine.oshea@reprieve.org.uk 020 7427 1099/ 07931592674 or visit www.reprieve.org.uk/joshuafrench.

Notes for Editors:

Case background:

At the end of April last year Joshua French and his co-defendant Tjostolv Moland travelled to the DRC from Uganda on a motorbike trip. When their motorbike broke down in Kisangani they hired a car and a driver, Abedi Kasongo, to drive them to Beni where they had a friend who would be able to take them back to Uganda. Two Congolese passengers, Kepo Aila and Kasimu Aradjabu, travelled with them. Several hours into the journey, in the middle of the rainforest, the driver, Kasongo, was shot and killed.

But both men maintain that they were ambushed by gunmen. The authorities also allege that French and Moland are Norwegian spies, and that the maps, compasses, GPS system, mobile phones and cameras they were carrying prove this. After his arrest, French, who has a Norwegian mother and British father, was forced to sign a confession after being beaten and subjected to a mock execution.

There is no physical evidence against them and over time the State’s case against them has changed drastically. Witness statements have also been modified over time and appear to be manufactured to fit in with the prosecutions version of events.

Despite blatant discrepancies the courts have taken the prosecution’s version of events as read and have refused to investigate other leads. As evidence the prosecution has produced photographs of two guns – both photographs were taken in Norway and neither weapon has ever left Norway. To date the courts have refused to allow ballistics to be tested.

On 8 September 2009 French and Moland were sentenced to multiple death sentences for murder and espionage. These sentences were upheld on appeal on 3 December 2009. The Appeal Court also ordered French, Moland and Norway to pay the DRC US$ 500 million in damages.

Both the trial and appeal were held in French, a language which neither French nor Moland understands. Large parts of the proceedings were not translated and at the appeal verdict hearing the judge told the interpreter to stop translating because “it was taking too long”. During the appeal Moland was suffering from cerebral malaria. He was extremely ill and was hallucinating. The prosecution allege that during this time he wrote a letter confessing that he was a spy and that he killed Kasongo. This letter has not been disclosed to the defence. An independent panel of doctors instructed by the court concluded that Moland was suffering from a psychosis and recommended that he be referred to a neuro-psychiatrist. This was ignored by the Court. The judge even accused Moland’s doctor of poisoning him and had him arrested.

Both men are former soldiers. French was born in Norway but lived in the seaside town of Margate, Kent as a child. He moved back to Norway when his parents divorced, but returned to the UK aged 20. He later served in the Norwegian Army where he met Moland. They both left the Norwegian Army in 2007 and worked as security guards in various places, including the Gulf of Aden where they worked guarding against pirates.

French and Moland are being tried in the military courts – a clear violation of the DRC’s own constitution, which stipulates that the jurisdiction of the military courts is limited to offences committed by members of the armed forces and the national police. Military courts trying civilian cases is far from uncommon in the DRC, however, and the military courts claim they have jurisdiction over any offence involving firearms regardless of whether the defendants are military or civilian. The right to a fair trial is constantly violated and judges and generals regularly abuse their power. 

Money appears to play a huge role in these proceedings and astronomical claims for damages have been sought in this case. The witness who testified against Moland and French put in claims of damages of US $10 million each. The Driver’s Association asked for US $3 million and the owner of the vehicle (which has been returned) has demanded US $1 million. The DRC, which originally put in claims for US $5 billion were awarded US $500 million by the appeal court in Kisangani.

Prison conditions in DRC are appalling; cells are extremely small for the number of prisoners they hold and many cells have no windows, lights, electricity, running water or toilet facilities. Health care is inadequate and infectious diseases are rampant. Both men have caught malaria several times.

Reprieve:

Reprieve’s current casework involves representing 33 prisoners in the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, working on behalf of prisoners facing the death penalty, and conducting ongoing investigations into the rendition and the secret detention of ‘ghost prisoners’ in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

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Katherine O’Shea ReprieveTel: 020 7427 1099Mob: 07931592674

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