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Sloppy Forensics Cloud Verdict in DRC Journalist Serge Maheshe's Murder

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Serge Maheshe, murdered broadcaster for Radio Okapi

 

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) this week supported the acquittal of two friends of Radio Okapi journalist Serge Maheshe who were accused of taking part in his murder. However, IFJ said in a press release that there were “irregularities” in the trial which precluded discovery of who, exactly, was responsible for Maheshe’s murder.

Maheshe, a journalist and Bukavu’s head of Radio Okapi, run by the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC), was shot and killed on June 13, 2007. He was murdered as he was about to get into a UN vehicle, in front of a friend’s house on Saio avenue in Bukavu city center. His two friends, Serge Muhima and Alain Mulimbi Shamavu, were not wounded in the attack.

The Military Court of Bukavu sentenced two alleged gunmen to death in August 2007, along with a third individual said to be their accomplice. The accused gunmen, Freddy Bisimwa and Mugisho Mastakila, were convicted of the murder, which was attributed to a bungled robbery attempt. The third defendant, Bisimwa Sikitu Patient, was convicted of criminal conspiracy and also sentenced to death.

 

Serge Maheshe was just 31 years old and held a bachelor of law degree from the Catholic university of Bukavu. Married with two children, Serge joined Radio Okapi as a journalist in February 2003.

OEN covered this story extensively a year ago and a video tribute we produced with our own photos can be viewed here.

 


Radio Okapi Offices in Goma, DRC

This OEN writer feels very close to the story, since we were in Kivu not four months before Maheshe’s murder, got to know some of his colleagues in Goma, and had our interviews with Radio Okapi stolen by conservation interests in the region. The MONUC offices in Goma and Kinshasa were instrumental in securing our release from the secret police in Goma after detention as an alleged spy.

"We welcome the release of Maheshe’s friends but this decision has been overshadowed by our fears that we still do not know the truth about Serge’s murder,” said Gabriel Baglo, Director of the IFJ Africa Office in a press release.

"This decision has not brought the truth to light and we are calling on the Congolese government to reopen the case and transfer it to a civil and independent court and conduct a serious investigation to find out who is responsible for this killing.”

IFJ has good reason to question the outcome of the trial and sentencing. Observers and attorneys received death threats when they questioned irregularities in the trail.

An appeals court confirmed the death sentence against Freddy Bisimwa and Mugisho Mastakila. At the same trial, the Public Prosecutor called for the acquittal of the Maheshe’s two friends for lack of evidence. Bisimwa and Mastakila recanted their charges that Maheshe’s friends, Serge Muhima and Alain Mulimbi Shamavu, were the instigators of the murder.

In a tale as old as colonial rule in Congo, Bisimwa and Mastakila said they made these allegations at the request of two military judges.

Human rights organizations and Protection Internationale cited sloppy forensics at the crime scene, including improper handling of the slain journalist’s clothing, the refusal to call witnesses from a military camp near the crime scene, and the refusal of the court to allow the introduction of autopsy and ballistics evidence in to the trial.

Reporters Without Borders has also condemned the sentencing , blaming poor investigations into the murder by the police and a “less than credible trial” by the military tribunal.

Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, also said that the military court had refused to explore other credible leads in the case and to ask for ballistic expertise on the weapon used for the crime. Arbour additionally cited repeated threats against the defendants, the defense lawyers, and independent observers of the trial.

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Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative environmental and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill (more...)
 

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