The hearings in the appeal of four persons against their conviction for the murder of journalist Serge Maheshe are being conducted in a "disgraceful" manner by a military court in Bukavu, in the eastern province Sud-Kivu, Reporters Without Borders said today. The news editor of UN-backed Radio Okapi's regional office, Maheshe was gunned on a Bukavu street on 13 June 2007.
"It is not too late for coherence and credibility to be restored to this appeal," the press freedom organisation said. "It is incomprehensible that the judges obstinately refuse to examine the spontaneous confessions made by the two alleged gunmen, in which they absolve the two friends of Maheshe who were convicted of putting them up to the murder."
Reporters Without Borders added: "The fact that the two alleged gunmen are unable to follow the hearings for lack of interpreters reinforces the suspicions that the court is not impartial. If the judges really want to render justice and avoid repeating the fiasco of the original trial, they should ensure that the rights of the defence are respected and they should listen to what they defendants are saying."
The appeal began to be heard on 6 February but was adjourned and was then postponed several times on procedural grounds. When another hearing finally got under way at 10:30 a.m. on 5 March, the court began by rejecting a request for the release of Maheshe's two close friends, Serge Muhima and Alain Mulimbi Shamavu, who were with him at the time of the murder. The two alleged gunmen, Freddy Bisimwa Matabaro and Mugisho Rwezangabo Mastakila, had initially accused them of being the instigators. They later retracted and accused military judges of bribing them to accuse Maheshe's friends.
Matabaro and Mastakila only speak Swahili, but all of the discussions between the judges and the lawyers are being conducted in French. Nonetheless the court has refused to provide them with interpreters. On the grounds that it would "disrupt the agenda" and "create controversy," the judges have also systematically refused to let them name the military judges who allegedly bribed them.
Maheshe's family has meanwhile decided to stop attending the hearings.
In a report dated 28 January and released on 6 March, the United Nations Mission in Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) said there were serious irregularities in the original trial and accused the court and the prosecutors of showing no interest in trying to establish the truth and render justice to the victim and his family. The investigation and trial that concluded with the four defendants being sentenced to death were "botched," the report said, adding that both the rights of the defence and the most basic rules of criminal investigation were violated.
The original trial before a Bukavu military court ended on 28 August with Matabaro and Mastakila being sentenced to death for Maheshe's murder and with Maheshe's two friends, Muhima and Shamavu, being sentenced to death for "criminal association." The court based its convictions solely on the "confessions" made by Matabaro and Mastakila and their testimony that Maheshe's two friends were the instigators. No motive for the murder and no material evidence was produced. When issuing its verdict, the court acknowledged that many aspects of the case were unclear.
Then, in a letter dated 8 September, Matabaro and Mastakila accused two military judges of bribing them to say they shot Maheshe at the behest of his two friends. They claimed in the letter, a copy of which is held by Reporters Without Borders, that the two judges provided them with evidence to support this story and promised them they would be allowed to travel to South Africa and would receive a regular income.
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