Thursday, July 1, 2010

King Albert II and Queen Paola of Belgium visit Congo for 50th year of independence celebration

THE Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated the anniversary of its independence from Belgium last night, poorer and more violent than it was 50 years ago and haunted by the ghosts of its troubled past.

A million Congolese lined the streets of Kinshasa, the capital, to catch a glimpse of Albert II, King of the Belgians, on the first royal visit to the country for 25 years. But the king refused to speak in public during his stay, for fear of stumbling into a post-colonial public relations minefield.

When Congo gained its independence in 1960, Belgium colluded in the overthrow and murder of its first elected black leader, Patrice Lumumba. It has accepted "moral responsibility" but brought no one to justice.

As the celebrations began in Kinshasa, Lumumba's three sons announced they would bring a private prosecution in Brussels against 12 Belgians allegedly involved in the abduction, torture and murder of their father in 1961. Belgian and CIA agents plotted the downfall of Lumumba because of his close links to the Soviet Union. A CIA spy was ordered to kill him by planting a tube of poisoned toothpaste in his bathroom. Belgian officials helped to transfer Lumumba to the breakaway province of Katanga, where he was killed, a Belgian parliamentary inquiry in 2001 found. The firing squad was commanded by a Belgian officer, now dead.

Lawyers working for the Lumumba family believe they can build a case to circumvent Belgium's 30-year statute of limitations for murder.

"An analysis of international law gives new opportunities to prosecute this as a war crime," said Christophe Marchand, a Brussels human rights lawyer assisting the family. "It took place in the framework of an international armed conflict between Congo and Belgium, and that opens a new perspective because there is no statute of limitations for war crimes.

"We can now go before a judge to seek accountability for what happened."

Mr Marchand said a case would be presented to a Belgian court in October but refused to name the likely defendants, admitting they were now old men.

Francois, Roland and Guy Lumumba deliberately chose the build-up to the anniversary to announce their plan to prosecute surviving Belgian officials allegedly involved in their father's death. Guy, the leader's youngest son, said: "I want to know how he died. There are many books I can read and everything has been said, but there is no justice."

It was King Albert's great-great-uncle, Leopold II, who, in his desire to create a glorious empire to emulate other European powers, seized Congo, a territory 75 times larger than Belgium, and proceeded to exploit it for rubber and ivory at the cost of millions of lives. Since independence, the country has suffered two wars that claimed 5.4 million lives.

Besides Leopold and Lumumba, a more recent ghost also haunted celebrations. On June 2 the country's most prominent human rights activist, Floribert Chebeya, was found dead, tied up in the back of his car. There are suspicions that Chebeya was killed to remove his powerful voice from next year's presidential elections when opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi will challenge the incumbent, Joseph Kabila, the son of the assassinated former president Laurent Kabila.

Adam Hochschild, the author of King Leopold's Ghost, which chronicles the republic's bloodstained history, said: "I would have suggested that both King Albert II and the American representative at the independence celebrations attended the funeral of Floribert Chebeya.

"They both should say that such assassinations should not happen in any democratic society today - just as they should not have happened 49 years ago, when both the US and Belgium were complicit in the assassination of Lumumba."