(Kinshasa) – Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo should meaningfully investigate government responsibility for the 2017 murders of United Nations investigators Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán. The administration of President Felix Tshisekedi should commit to ensuring that all those responsible for the murders are held to account and international fair trial standards are met.
On March 12, 2017, assailants summarily executed Zaida Catalán, a Swede, and Michael Sharp, an American, while they were documenting serious rights violations in Kasai Central province for the UN Security Council. UN peacekeepers found their bodies two weeks later near the village of Bunkonde. Their Congolese interpreter, Betu Tshintela, is still missing as are three motorbike drivers who accompanied them, Isaac Kabuayi, Pascal Nzala, and Moise (surname unknown). A trial of about 50 defendants began in June 2017 before a military court in Kananga, the provincial capital, and a UN team, known as the Support Mechanism, has since been providing support and advice.
“Congo’s prosecutor should examine all leads to uncover the full truth about the UN experts’ killing and what happened to their interpreter and drivers,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Further senior officials, including those who may ultimately bear responsibility for planning and ordering the murders, should be investigated.”
Violence tied to customary control over local chieftaincies erupted in the Kasai region in 2016. The conflict was linked to national political dynamics, with the Congolese army backing the leadership of people considered loyal to then-President Joseph Kabila and his political coalition, and some of the militia groups supporting those closer to the opposition. Over the course of the violence, hundreds of people were killed and over 200,000 people were displaced from their homes.
Kabila’s government initially blamed the Kamuina Nsapu militia for the murders, but mounting evidence has pointed to the role of state officials, including through 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.”
The Kananga courts have proceeded slowly, and the trial was suspended between March and October 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. More than fifty defendants have so far been charged, but only a dozen of them have been directly cited during the hearings. Other accused remain at large, and two defendants died in detention in suspicious circumstances. At least three other defendants alleged that they were tortured by police and at the national intelligence agency headquarters. Others escaped from Kananga prison in May 2019 and have not been apprehended. The lack of legal representation for defendants in violation of their basic rights has also led to numerous delays in the proceedings while Congolese security services have allegedly interfered with the investigation.
Over the past year, the authorities have arrested three individuals who have been presented as key players in the murders. A video of the execution, which circulated in the weeks after the killings, has yet to be examined as material evidence to identify the assailants.
The prosecution should go beyond those who carried out the killings and, if warranted, move the investigation up the broader chain of command, Human Rights Watch said. Col. Jean de Dieu Mambweni, an army officer, and Thomas Nkashama, an immigration official, are the only security or state agents among the defendants. Jose Tshibuabua, a suspect who was an informant for the national intelligence agency, died in detention in late 2019.
“It’s not just our families but the people of Kasai and Congo who deserve the truth,” Elizabeth Morseby, Catalan’s sister, told Human Rights Watch by phone. “They also need closure for the horrific abuses that Zaida and Michael were investigating in the region. It is in everyone’s interest to solve this case.”
In recent proceedings, the prosecution has started to delve into phone logs showing circumstantial evidence that some of the defendants were in contact at the time, contradicting previous narratives based on their testimony.
One sign of progress is that more people with potentially relevant information have been asked to appear in court. These include Sonia Rolley, a journalist for RFI, who was in Kasai Central at the time of the murders and has since investigated them.
President Tshisekedi previously said in meetings with Human Rights Watch, senior US officials, and others, that he was committed to ensuring that the full truth is eventually told and that those most responsible for the murders are held to account. Current and former top officials should not be protected from prosecution, and anyone found to be interfering in the proceedings, tampering with evidence, or threatening defendants and witnesses should be appropriately sanctioned.
The UN Support Mechanism and Congo’s international partners should encourage the authorities to explore all relevant evidence and pursue leads until all avenues are exhausted. Congolese authorities, with UN support, should ensure that the security of all witnesses and defendants is protected.
“Four years on, Congo’s judiciary has yet to show that it intends to fully investigate the critical role that government and security officials may have played in the murders,” Fessy said. “Real justice cannot be ensured unless the court looks higher up the chain of command.”