Congo drama raises questions

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NEWS ANALYSIS: As the new murder trial of a young Norwegian-British man already convicted of another murder resumed this week in the Democratic Republic of Congo, questions are rising over how the Norwegian government is handling the case. One thing is the sheer amount of taxpayer money and diplomatic staff being dispatched to aid defendant and convict Joshua French, while others point out that Norwegian officials would never allow the level of intervention at home that they’re imposing on their Congolese counterparts.

Joshua French (center) defending himself against another murder charge in a Congolese court on Tuesday. At far left, his Norwegian defense attorney Hans Marius Graasvold, at far right, French's Norwegian mother. PHOTO: Marte Christensen / NTB Scanpix

Joshua French (center) defending himself against another murder charge in a Congolese court on Tuesday. At far left, his Norwegian defense attorney Hans Marius Graasvold, at far right, French’s Norwegian mother, Kari Hilde French. PHOTO: Marte Christensen / NTB Scanpix

Since French and his late Norwegian companion Tjostolv Moland were first arrested in Congo nearly four years ago, charged and later convicted of murdering their taxi driver and spying on Congo, the Norwegian state has sent a stream of diplomats and lawyers to Congo. The Norwegian officials have sought to either get the two pardoned or transferred to a Norwegian prison.

The stream of Norwegians heading to Congo and meeting with Congolese officials expanded late last year after Moland was found dead in his cell. French was charged with murdering him, too, and then followed a new stream of Norwegians coming to his aid, now including Norwegian crime investigators, pathologists and other medical personnel and even one of Norway’s most senior and highly respected diplomats, Kai Eide, a former UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan.

A spokesman for Norway’s foreign ministry admitted to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) last week that they have no full accounting over how much taxpayer money has been spent on the efforts to help the two young men who got into serious trouble far from home, the circumstances of which remain mysterious. The ministry readily acknowledges, however, that the Moland-French case has received an unusually large amount of attention and more resources than any other single case in recent memory of Norwegians in distress overseas.

Joshua French (left), a former Norwegian soldier convicted of murder and charged with a new one in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been getting top-level help from one of Norway's most respected and experienced diplomats, Kai Eide (right). PHOTO: Marte Christensen / NTB Scanpix

Joshua French (left), a former Norwegian soldier convicted of murder and charged with a new one in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has been getting top-level help from one of Norway’s most respected and experienced diplomats, Kai Eide (right). PHOTO: Marte Christensen / NTB Scanpix

On Tuesday, French was back in a military courtroom in Kinshasa, ready to defend himself after getting medical assistance from Norwegian doctors called in at the request of French’s Norwegian defense attorney. French had been showing signs of strain when his trial was supposed to begin earlier this month and it was postponed because of concerns over his health. It resumed with the latest team of Norwegian supporters in the courtroom including Eide himself, with French denying charges he killed Moland but admitting they had quarreled that night and drank heavily – reportedly a bottle of vodka each. An autopsy into Moland’s death that was carried out by both Norwegian and Congolese pathologists ruled it was a suicide. Congolese prosecutors blame French, and he faces yet another death sentence in Congo.

Debate rises over Norway’s role
Amidst all the drama in Congo, questions are rising over the Norwegians’ role in it all. French’s Norwegian mother has claimed that her son, a former special forces soldier in Norway who holds both Norwegian and British passports, has a right to all the state support he can get. Both the current and former Norwegian governments clearly seem to agree. Others don’t.

Ingvar Ambjørnsen, one of Norway’s most well-known authors and commentators who’s been viewing Norway from his home in Hamburg for years, wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen last week that the Congolese authorities have shown an almost “incomprehensible” level of patience with the Norwegians so far. Ambjørnsen suggests the Norwegians, as foreign officials and journalists in Congo, have been meddling in the case to a degree that would never have been tolerated in Norway.

He argues that the entire case smacks of a condescending tone on the part of the Norwegians, who are blatantly challenging Congo’s justice system. There’s no question that the prison conditions under which French and, earlier, the late Moland have been subjected to are a far cry from Norway’s own prisons, which have been described as “hotels” even by European convicts. Ambjørnsen suggests that the various types of Norwegian involvement suggests that Norwegian officials “simply can’t rely” on the work of their Congolese counterparts because they “don’t meet Norwegian standards.”

By being in Congo and operating in Congo, though, French and Moland subjected themselves to the laws and conditions of that land, Ambjørnsen wrote. Their case has been tried at all levels of the Congolese court system. They were found guilty and sentenced to death, under Congolese law. Those are the consequences that the Norwegians seem unwilling to accept.

Imagining a reversed situation
Ambjørnsen also urged Norwegians to imagine what would happen if the situation was turned around, with two Congolese men found carrying out mysterious operations on the Finnmark plateau of Northern Norway. “Their Norwegian driver is found dead, all witnesses point to the two Congolese as responsible,” he wrote, adding that then comes a stream of Congolese supporters to Norway, followed by packs of Congolese journalists and special envoys, who demand meetings with Norway’s prime minister and other top officials.

“I think we must agree that the authorities in Congo have shown almost incomprehensible patience with all the various Norwegians calling on them,” Ambjørnsen wrote. “We would never have accepted such behaviour.”

Ambjørnsen’s column in Dagsavisen seems to have provoked some thought, with NRK, for example, beginning to ask more questions of the Norwegian authorities regarding how they can justify all the support for French. The government could just as well, of course, been accused of not doing enough to aid Norwegians in distress overseas. It’s a fine balance and Ambjørnsen himself stressed he has no opinion on whether French and Moland, both of whom had earlier ties to Norway’s special forces and whose errand in Congo back in 2009 remains unclear, really did kill their driver.

“I’m not really interested in their Africa project, they’re just two of millions of young white men rambling around the continent, and  paradoxically enough, looking for personal wealth in one of the world’s poorest countries,” Ambjørnsen wrote. “But they came from one of the world’s richest countries, and from day one, Norwegian press coverage has been steered by a condescending tone towards Congo’s land and people.” Questions are also rising over why the Norwegian government is extending so much help, leaving a commentator at newspaper Aftenposten suggesting that the French-Moland case has taken on political and diplomatics aspects between Norway and the UK (given French’s British passport) on the one side and Congo on the other. Congolese politicians are left in a dilemma, of standing firm against wealthy European countries that are in a position to give Congo aid, or caving in to the requests for a pardon or transfer of French.

News bureau NTB reported just before Christmas that the Congolese filmmaker Djo Munga was working on a documentary about Moland and French, and not least using their case to examine how Congo and Africa are viewed by industrialized countries. Munga hasn’t received any support for his project from Norway to make the film.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund