On March 12, 2017, armed men summarily executed two United Nations investigators – Zaida Catalán, a Swede, and Michael Sharp, an American – while they were documenting rights abuses in the central Kasai region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their Congolese interpreter and three motorbike drivers remain missing. Three years on, their families, colleagues, and friends are still awaiting justice.
The government of former President Joseph Kabila initially blamed the murders on the Kamuina Nsapu militia, but increasing evidence has pointed to government responsibility, including investigations by Human Rights Watch, reporting by Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Reuters, and a joint investigation by five international media outlets known as “Congo Files.”
A trial began in June 2017, and the UN soon deployed a team to provide support and advice. Of the more than 50 defendants eventually charged, many of whom remain at large, two died in detention in suspicious circumstances. At least three others allege they were tortured by police during arrest and at the national intelligence agency headquarters. The lack of legal representation for defendants in a violation of their basic rights has led to numerous delays in the trial proceedings.
The role Congolese state agents played in the murders is critical. An army officer and an immigration official are now among the defendants, thanks to information obtained since the trial began. A suspect who died in detention was known to be an informant for the national intelligence agency. But the prosecution has repeatedly failed to follow up on leads or interrogate more senior officials, including those who may ultimately bear responsibility for planning and ordering the murders. The Congolese security services have also allegedly interfered with the investigation.
Congo’s current president, Félix Tshisekedi, has said, in meetings with Human Rights Watch, senior United States officials, and others, that he is committed to ensuring those most responsible for the murders are held to account. But he has yet to demonstrate the political will needed to make that a reality. The full truth should be uncovered, current and former top officials should not be protected from prosecution, all defendants must have fair adequate legal representation, and anyone found to be interfering in the proceedings, tampering with evidence, or ill-treating defendants and witnesses should be appropriately sanctioned.
This is important both for the memory and legacy of Michael and Zaida – who lost their lives while seeking truth and justice for crimes suffered by countless Congolese in the Kasai region and beyond – and to send an unequivocal message that those responsible for such heinous crimes do not go unpunished.