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Death Penalty Information

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

DRC: Member of opposition threatened with the death penalty
A LONDON-BASED lawyer, a mother of four, is facing execution by firing squad in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Marie-Thérãse Nlandu, 54, has been in prison in Kinshasa since November after returning to her home country to become the first woman to contest presidential elections there.
After being eliminated in the first round last July, she switched her support to the then vice-pres-ident, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was standing against President Joseph Kabila. She then represented him in a Supreme Court challenge to Kabila’s victory.
But as the appeal began Nlandu was arrested and charged with illegal possession of firearms and inciting an insurrection. She was put before a military tribunal and has been refused medical assistance despite her deteriorating health.
“These charges carry the death penalty and the intention is to find her guilty,” said her husband, Professor Noel Mbala. “Kabila wants to kill her, because of her human rights work, assisting people who had been illegally arrested, because she was the first woman to run for president, and because of the appeal. He wants to kill her to show everyone he’s powerful and in charge.”
The family have lived in London since 1998 when they fled Congo after opposing the government of Laurent Kabila, the late father of the current president. Mbala and their two teenage sons now have British nationality but his wife refused to give up her Congolese citizenship.
He has now turned their small council flat in Lambeth, south London, into a campaign headquarters, sending out e-mails to ministers (Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, did not reply), human rights agencies and church groups. The mantelpiece is lined with photographs of Nlandu, their children and football trophies won by their two sons, aged 13 and 16.
“The boys are very disturbed,” Mbala said. “One of them goes days at a time not eating or speaking.” Two elder daughters are in Belgium, lobbying opinion makers there.
Mbala admits he feared for his wife when she returned to contest the elections. The first democratic elections since independence from Belgium in 1960, they followed a five-year war that drew in armies from five other African countries and left as many as 4m dead.
“I was worried because I know my country and know there’s no rule of law and anything can happen at any time,” he said. “But I thought the presence of the international community, election observers and the world’s biggest UN peacekeeping operation would act as a guarantor.”
Although the two rounds of voting in July and October took place amid acute tension and outbreaks of violence as well as allegations of vote-buying, the international community was highly relieved they went ahead at all.
But when Kabila was reelected, Bemba alleged fraud and appealed to the Supreme Court to overturn the result.
It was as Nlandu left the court on November 20 that she was given a message, supposedly from Bemba, to wait outside St Luc Ma Campagne church, where someone would collect her. She travelled there in one car while her driver and aides followed in another vehicle. But at the church she became suspicious and left.
The next day she discovered that occupants of the other car had been arrested. As the Supreme Court began to hear the appeal on November 21, violence erupted outside between Bemba supporters and police. The session was abandoned and Nlandu went to the Kin-Maziãres police station to find out what had happened to her associates.
As she was waiting to go in she telephoned her husband, the last time he spoke to her.
According to a statement she wrote later, the police colonel said: “Madame Nlandu, at last you are here.” He told her that three grenades had been found in her driver’s car and accused her of being behind a fire at the Supreme Court which had started after she left. He then allegedly tortured one of her aides in front of her.
Since then she has been held in Makala high-security prison. “She is in very degrading, inhuman conditions,” said Mbala. “It’s noisy, there are 10 women packed into each cell and she sleeps no more than two hours a night. Congolese prisons provide no food so my sister takes it to her.”
He is worried about her health. She has been suffering from a pulmonary infection, malaria and high blood pressure. When she appeared before the tribunal in January she was so weak that she could hardly walk.
Anneka Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has taken up Nlandu’s case, visited her last week. “She was not at all well,” she said. “She’s desperate, depressed and has been around Congo long enough to know they can convict her on no evidence.”
The tribunal that is supposed to be deciding her case has not sat since the end of January when the supposed witnesses admitted they had been paid by the government to incriminate Nlandu. “This is a case that doesn’t stack up at all,” said Van Woudenberg. “It’s clearly political.”
She pointed out that Kabila’s victory had been followed by a crackdown on opposition members. “Nlandu’s case is more high profile but it’s just one of a number of cases we are following. The one common thread is the lack of evidence and that they are all members of the opposition.”
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