Congo nightmare turned lucrative

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Just after the October announcement that a heroic doctor in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo had won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, a former Norwegian-British soldier launched a lucrative tour around Norway to speak about his years in prison in Congo. Now a member of Norway’s Parliament thinks Joshua French should repay the state for at least a portion of its costs in securing his release and bringing him back to Norway.

The case against Joshua French and his late business partner in Congo received widespread media coverage in Norway. Congo was back in the Norwegian news this week after a heroic Congolese doctor, Denis Mukwege, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to draw attention to sexual violence as a war crime, and treat victims.  PHOTO: NRK screen grab

French and his former business partner Tjostolv Moland were sentenced to death for the murder of their chauffeur in May 2009, also for alleged espionage, illegal possession of weapons and other charges their defenders claimed were false. Moland was later found dead in his prison cell in 2013, and French was also charged with his murder. His sentence was ultimately altered to life in prison and his mother Hilde French moved to Congo to care for him while in prison.

The Norwegian government provided diplomatic and legal aid all along until finally succeeding in securing French’s release from a military prison in Kinshasa. His return to Norway was announced by none other than Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her foreign minister at the time, Børge Brende, on Norway’s Constitution Day on the 17th of May last year. The case is believed to have cost Norway’s foreign ministry alone at least NOK 4.7 million.

Profiting from his story
French is now profiting on his ordeal in Congo. Newspaper Dagbladet reported earlier this fall that his speaking tour is bringing in at least NOK 6 million in ticket revenues. He refused to account in any way for his eight years in prison for the first six months after his return, but since has attempted to seize control of his drama himself. The 36-year-old man whom many call a mercenary had charged those interested in his story as much as NOK 500 to hear it, with no impromptu questions or debate allowed. His mother has already written a book, more are planned and a film came out this fall, but it did not involve French and did poorly at the box office.

French’s speaking tour sold out at several of its venues, however, appealing to a mostly male crowd and raising questions about whether it was appropriate. “It sends the wrong signal when the state has used public money to bring home people who have broken local laws abroad,” Erlend Larsen, a Member of Parliament for Solberg’s own Conservative Party told Aftenposten. Larsen thinks French should be very grateful to the foreign ministry and government and offer to pay back some of the money that was spent on him.

Larsen had no major objections to French’s speaking tour itself, saying that’s “part of living in a democratic country with freedom of expression.” But he believes that every individual needs to take responsibility for what he or she does “and what situations you put yourself in. These two (French and Moland) traveled voluntarily to Congo on a private and risky operation.”

No precedent for claiming a refund
Foreign ministry spokesman Frode Overland Andersen said, however, that the state demands compensation for such assistance only in very special circumstances. “There are some examples regarding search and rescue operations, but so far there have never been claims made for offering assistance abroad,” Andersen told Aftenposten.

French’s attorney, Hans Marius Graasvold, claims there’s no reason for French to offer any compensation, claiming he received consular assistance “that all Norwegian citizens have a right to receive.” Graasvold also claims French was innocent and incorrectly convicted for two murders and espionage. “You can criticize him for traveling into Congo, but he was innocent of the situation he landed in.” French himself has consistently declined comment.

Among those criticizing French at least indirectly has been Liv Tørres, the director of the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo who notes how wars and massacres have dragged on in Congo since its liberation from Belgium in the 1960s. She notes, as does new Nobel Laureate Mukwege, how Congo has gone from being a colony to a country plagued by ethnic conflicts, low education levels, widespread povery and what Mukwege calls political mismanagement. Multi-national corporations, he claimed while in Oslo, “plunder” the country of its natural resources as the wars rage primarily over power and money. Tørres stressed, as did Mukwege in his Nobel acceptance speech on Monday, that the land where 90 percent of its people live in poverty is actually one of the world’s wealthiest, with its diamond mines, copper, cobalt, uranium and gold.

Soldiers for hire add to the problems
Tørres wrote in a recent commentary in newspaper Aftenposten and the magazine Bistandsaktuelt how the soldiers of hire operating through so-called “private security firms,” like Moland and French, are “an integrated part” of a system where wars are started over control of resources, with rape and sexual violence in turn “an integrated part” of that. The atrocities are difficult to comprehend.

Newspaper VG reported last month that state crime investigation agency Kripos is evaluating whether Moland and French entered Congo from Uganda on an illegal project with sharp ammunition. French has insisted it was not. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that French said at one of his paid speaking engagements that “the motivation” for going to Congo “was never money, but experience.” He told Dagbladet in 2010 that they were hired by an attorney for a rebel group in Congo that wanted to find a leader who had run off with the group’s money.

“Congo is hell for many civilians and heaven for those interested in violence and money,” Tørres wrote. “Traveling around (in Congo) as a soldier for hire looking for action cannot be described as heroic.” A real hero in Congo, she wrote, is Mukwege, “who can tell a story about Congo that’s much more true than what Norwegians can be served” in local cinemas or auditoriums. Berglund