Briton Joshua French sentenced to death by Democratic Republic of the Congo after second military show trial

June 10, 2010

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (June 10, 2010):

Briton Joshua French sentenced to death by Democratic Republic of the Congo after second military show trial.

Joshua French, a dual British/Norwegian national, and Norwegian Tjostolv Moland today received multiple death sentences after a military show trial in Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

French (28) and Moland (29), who have been accused of murder, attempted murder, criminal conspiracy, armed robbery and espionage, were first sentenced to death in September of last year. The sentences were upheld on appeal but quashed in April by the Military High Court in Kinshasa and sent back for re-trial.

Both men have always maintained that their innocence, and there is no physical evidence against them. The two witnesses who testified against them were awarded large sums of money in compensation and have changed their stories countless times.

During the proceedings French and Moland were forced to stand for over six hours a day in the sweltering heat – temperatures upwards of 40 degrees and extreme humidity were reported in the courtroom. Forced standing can lead to swelling, bruising, blisters and excruciating pain. The Gestapo routinely used forced standing as a punishment in concentration camps and Stalin’s secret police used it to coerce seemingly voluntary confessions in the Moscow show trials of 1936 to 1938. More recently, the long time standing used by American interrogators has been officially limited to four hours per day.

The prosecution has also referred to statements obtained through torture, a violation of a number of international law provisions.

Reprieve’s Deputy Death Penalty Director Tineke Harris said: “This farce of a trial would be comical if the stakes weren’t so tragically high. Each time the military prosecution changes their theory, the witnesses all obligingly change their story. It is now clear why the DRC’s own constitution forbids the military from administering justice. Two lives now hang in the balance and the British and Norwegian governments must press the DRC to provide a credible civilian trial for Joshua and Tjolstov and arrange for their repatriation – before it’s too late.”

Joshua French 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. A written judgment is expected soon.

More details at www.reprieve.org.uk/joshuafrench. For more information please contact Katherine O’Shea katherine.oshea@reprieve.org.uk 020 7427 1099/07931592674.

Notes for Editors:

Case background

    At the end of April 2009 French and Moland travelled into DRC from Uganda on a motorbike trip. When their motorbike broke down in Kisangani they hired a car and a driver, Abedi Kasongo 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. The authorities allege that French and Moland killed Kasongo, but both men maintain that they were ambushed by gunmen. Fearing for their lives they fled from the incident and later escaped into the dense jungle. French was arrested on 10 May 2009. Moland was arrested five days later. Moland was charged with murder, attempted murder, criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, espionage and possession of an illegal weapon. French was charged with attempted murder, criminal conspiracy, armed robbery, espionage and possession of an illegal weapon. French and Moland have always maintained they are innocent and that they were ambushed by gunmen. There is no physical evidence against them. The two witnesses, Kepo Aila and Kasimu Aradjabu, have given conflicting and inconsistent testimonies. “Evidence” put on by the prosecution includes photographs of two guns alleged to have been found on Moland’s computer; both these guns have been traced back to Norway, they have never left Norway. The prosecution also claim that the maps, compass and GPS system they were carrying proves they were spies. 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. On 8 September a military Tribunal sentenced French and Moland to multiple death sentences. French and Moland understood little of what was said during the trial which was held in French which neither speaks. There was no interpreter for a large part of the trial and for those hearings where an interpreter was present only a small part of what was said was translated and even then mistakes were constantly made – French said that when he told the court he worked in security the interpreter translated it as he worked as a spy. 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.At the end of last year Moland was extremely ill with cerebral malaria. He suffered from delusions and during the appeal hearings he could be seen laughing one minute and crying the next. The appeal judge alleged that Moland had been poisoned and had his doctor arrested. Their lawyer was also threatened with arrest. Unsurprisingly, on the 3rd of December 2009 their death sentences were upheld. During the reading of the judgement, which took several hours, the chief judge complained that the interpreter was slowing things down and asked him to stop translating. Money appears to be playing a significant part in these legal proceedings. The Norwegian authorities have categorically denied that the men were in any way involved in espionage for Norway. The DRC made a claim for USD 500 billion, an astronomical sum of money by any standards. 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 and served in the British Army. He also 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. In April 2009, the Military High Court in Kinshasa overturned their convictions for technical reasons. 

Prison conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

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 rampant. In October 2009 the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Philip Alston, said “being imprisoned in a DRC jail is often a fate worse than hell… Prison over-crowding is shocking, even by the standards of a very poor country”.

Reprieve

Reprieve, a legal action charity, uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. Reprieve investigates, litigates and educates, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial and saving lives. Clive Stafford Smith is the founder of Reprieve and has spent 25 years working on behalf of people facing the death penalty in the USA.

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.’