Woman who wanted to lead Congo faces execution
Christina Lamb, The Times
A LONDON-BASED lawyer, a mother of four, is facing execution by firing squad
in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Marie-Thérãse Nlandu, 54, has been
in prison in Kinshasa since November after returning to her home country to
become the first woman to contest presidential elections there.
After being eliminated in the first round last July, she switched her
support to the then vice-pres-ident, Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was standing
against President Joseph Kabila. She then represented him in a Supreme Court
challenge to Kabila’s victory.
But as the appeal began Nlandu was arrested and charged with illegal
possession of firearms and inciting an insurrection. She was put before a
military tribunal and has been refused medical assistance despite her
“These charges carry the death penalty and the intention is to find her
guilty,” said her husband, Professor Noel Mbala. “Kabila wants to kill her,
because of her human rights work, assisting people who had been illegally
arrested, because she was the first woman to run for president, and because
of the appeal. He wants to kill her to show everyone he’s powerful and in
The family have lived in London since 1998 when they fled Congo after
opposing the government of Laurent Kabila, the late father of the current
president. Mbala and their two teenage sons now have British nationality but
his wife refused to give up her Congolese citizenship.
He has now turned their small council flat in Lambeth, south London, into a
campaign headquarters, sending out e-mails to ministers (Margaret Beckett,
the foreign secretary, did not reply), human rights agencies and church
groups. The mantelpiece is lined with photographs of Nlandu, their children
and football trophies won by their two sons, aged 13 and 16.
“The boys are very disturbed,” Mbala said. “One of them goes days at a time
not eating or speaking.” Two elder daughters are in Belgium, lobbying
opinion makers there.
Mbala admits he feared for his wife when she returned to contest the
elections. The first democratic elections since independence from Belgium in
1960, they followed a five-year war that drew in armies from five other
African countries and left as many as 4m dead.
“I was worried because I know my country and know there’s no rule of law and
anything can happen at any time,” he said. “But I thought the presence of
the international community, election observers and the world’s biggest UN
peacekeeping operation would act as a guarantor.”
Although the two rounds of voting in July and October took place amid acute
tension and outbreaks of violence as well as allegations of vote-buying, the
international community was highly relieved they went ahead at all.
But when Kabila was reelected, Bemba alleged fraud and appealed to the
Supreme Court to overturn the result.
It was as Nlandu left the court on November 20 that she was given a message,
supposedly from Bemba, to wait outside St Luc Ma Campagne church, where
someone would collect her. She travelled there in one car while her driver
and aides followed in another vehicle. But at the church she became
suspicious and left.
The next day she discovered that occupants of the other car had been
arrested. As the Supreme Court began to hear the appeal on November 21,
violence erupted outside between Bemba supporters and police. The session
was abandoned and Nlandu went to the Kin-Maziãres police station to find out
what had happened to her associates.
As she was waiting to go in she telephoned her husband, the last time he
spoke to her.
According to a statement she wrote later, the police colonel said: “Madame
Nlandu, at last you are here.” He told her that three grenades had been
found in her driver’s car and accused her of being behind a fire at the
Supreme Court which had started after she left. He then allegedly tortured
one of her aides in front of her.
Since then she has been held in Makala high-security prison. “She is in very
degrading, inhuman conditions,” said Mbala. “It’s noisy, there are 10 women
packed into each cell and she sleeps no more than two hours a night.
Congolese prisons provide no food so my sister takes it to her.”
He is worried about her health. She has been suffering from a pulmonary
infection, malaria and high blood pressure. When she appeared before the
tribunal in January she was so weak that she could hardly walk.
Anneka Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, which has
taken up Nlandu’s case, visited her last week. “She was not at all well,”
she said. “She’s desperate, depressed and has been around Congo long enough
to know they can convict her on no evidence.”
The tribunal that is supposed to be deciding her case has not sat since the
end of January when the supposed witnesses admitted they had been paid by
the government to incriminate Nlandu. “This is a case that doesn’t stack up
at all,” said Van Woudenberg. “It’s clearly political.”
She pointed out that Kabila’s victory had been followed by a crackdown on
opposition members. “Nlandu’s case is more high profile but it’s just one of
a number of cases we are following. The one common thread is the lack of
evidence and that they are all members of the opposition.”
Source : The Times (UK)