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MURDER APPEAL MARRED BY RIGHTS VIOLATIONS

A military appeals court has sentenced to death three people for the killing of a UN journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a trial riddled with "irregularities", say Journalist in Danger (JED), other IFEX members, rights groups and the UN.

Serge Maheshe, a reporter with UN-backed Radio Okapi, was shot dead in the eastern border city of Bukavu, in the restive South Kivu province, in June 2007 when he was getting into a UN vehicle with two friends.

On 21 May, the court sentenced to death the two convicted gunmen along with a third man said to be their accomplice. Maheshe's two friends and eyewitnesses of the crime, Alain Mulimbi and Serge Muhima, who were initially accused of plotting the killing based on statements of the two gunmen and detained for 10 months, were acquitted. The move was welcomed by IFEX members.

But the military court trial and the appeals process have been marred by inadequate protection of the defendants' most basic rights to a fair trial, from the presumption of innocence to adequate preparation time for their lawyers, say JED and other IFEX members, as well as the U.N. mission in D.R.C. and a coalition of 18 Congolese rights groups.

JED says it was "dissatisfied with the outcome of the trial since it did not establish what really happened on the deadly night of 13 June ... The verdict is the outcome of a botched trial based on a superficial investigation."

"There were no ballistic tests or autopsy. The defence lawyers and independent observers received anonymous threats. And certain hypotheses were deliberately ignored," said JED and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in a joint press release.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the retrial failed to establish a clear motive for the crime and prosecute the masterminds. "We call on the Congolese authorities to pursue this case to the end. Those arrested should include those who ordered the assassination, not simply those accused of carrying out the crime," says CPJ.

Human Rights Watch also condemned the trial, saying it had reports that confessions were obtained by torture. There were also reports of death threats against journalists, observers and lawyers at the retrial.

An August 2007 trial had resulted in the hasty convictions of four men, including Maheshe's two companions. Even back then, IFEX members deemed the trial a farce, for basing the convictions on the gunmen's inconsistent statements, and with no motive or material evidence. The court itself underlined that doubts remained.

Threats and intimidation against journalists are common in DRC, which in 2006 held its first free elections in more than four decades. At least four journalists have been killed since 2005 in the country.

IFEX members are calling for the Maheshe case to be reopened and transferred to a civil and independent court.

Visit these links:
- JED (French): http://tinyurl.com/6c37yr
- JED (English): http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93948/
- CPJ: http://www.cpj.org/news/2008/africa/drc22mayr08na.html
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/64mruv
- IFJ: http://tinyurl.com/4aksj7
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27131
- "IFEX Communiqué" (4 September 2007) on initial trial: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/86022/
(27 May 2008)

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