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RSF denounces "disgraceful" appeal hearings in Maheshe murder trial

(RSF/IFEX) - 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 on 12 March 2008. The news editor of UN-backed Radio Okapi's regional office, Maheshe was gunned down 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 the 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. (local time) 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.

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