French team seeks indefinite delay

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UPDATED: Lawyers for Joshua French, the Norwegian man accused of murdering his friend in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have requested his trial be delayed indefinitely. French was taken to two different hospitals on Wednesday, and was reportedly too ill to face the trial scheduled to resume on Friday.

French’s legal team and foreign ministry representatives met with the DRC’s head of military prosecutions, Joseph Ponde, and the prosecutor in French’s case, Katenda Homere Nkulu on Thursday. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported the meeting at Ndolo Prison in the DRC capital Kinshasa lasted for several hours.

“We have discussed French’s health condition, which we feel is so serious that the case tomorrow should be postponed,” said lawyer Hans Marius Graasvold. He wouldn’t go into detail about French’s ailments, but said the delay could be lengthy. “It’s my firm view that a one or two day postponement is not sufficient. He must get a reprieve long enough for his health to improve.”

French’s team has also requested access to “adequate healthcare professionals.” Graasvold understood the court would decide on Friday whether to adjourn the case for longer.

Stressed and sick
Prison officers said there’s no doubt French’s health has deteriorated, after he was taken to hospital on Wednesday afternoon. “For the first time in two years, French has been outside of the prison,” said Graasvold. “Taking into account the stress he has been under lately, this may have been an extra strain on him in addition to everything else in this case.”

Earlier that day Grassvold had told the press corps French would not be speaking to them further because he was so stressed and vulnerable.

French’s trial is due to resume Friday, after problems appointing an interpreter on Tuesday saw the case adjourned just half an hour after it began. French is on trial for murdering his cell mate, fellow Norwegian Tjostolv Moland who was found dead last August. The pair had been in prison since 2009 after they were convicted of killing their driver, a crime they both denied. Moland’s death was initially treated as a suicide, before DRC authorities claimed French drugged and strangled him. Norwegian forensic investigators found no such evidence during the autopsy.

“French will be set free”
Meanwhile, a DRC senator claimed President Joseph Kabila plans to release French. Norwegian authorities were skeptical about the claims, saying they have not heard of Senator Pascal Masela Laka Ngaliema Kahungu and are not aware of any such plans.

Joshua French, in the cell he shared with fellow Norwegian Tjostolv Moland in Kisangani, before the two were transferred to another prison. After Moland's death in August, French was moved to another cell that he shares with nine other prisoners. PHOTO: Christian Thomassen/NTB Scanpix

Joshua French, in the cell he shared with fellow Norwegian Tjostolv Moland in Kisangani, before the two were transferred to prison in Kinshasa. A DRC senator and member of President Kabila’s political party claimed French will be released but he doesn’t know when. PHOTO: Christian Thomassen/NTB Scanpix

Newspaper Dagbladet reported Kahungu is a veteran heavyweight of Congolese politics. The 74-year-old senator is a member of Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and sits on defense and European Union cooperation committees. Kahungu told the paper several diplomatic meetings between Norwegian, British and Congolese authorities, including a meeting with President Kabila have paid off.

“The president has a plan and will do something,” he told Dagbladet. “French will be set free, but I don’t know when. If we just take it easy it’ll be alright in the end.” When the journalist pushed Kahungu on what that means, he repeated, “We just have to take it easy.”

“It is important for Congo to cooperate well with all the countries in the world,” he continued. “He is a foreigner and his place is not here in Congo. He should get to go home.” Kahungu said the key to French’s released was a pardon from President Kabila, which would be based on a recommendation from the justice department.

Who is Kahungu?
Norwegian authorities are not putting too much weight on the claims. “This is the first time we’ve heard this name,” said Jon Otto Brødholdt, the advisor assisting Norwegian special envoy Kai Eide in the DRC captial, Kinshasa. “Eide has not had meetings with him, and we are not aware that the president has such a plan.”

Dagbladet reported Kahungu is a politician from the era of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who ruled from 1965 to 1997. He is a former police chief who was first elected in 1981. The information was based on an internal report from the US Embassy in Congo, released by Wikileaks.

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate