Belgian lawyers seek war crimes charges for officials in Congo’s Patrice Lumumba assassination

By Slobodan Lekic, AP
Monday, June 21, 2010

Lawyers: Murder of Congolese PM was war crime

BRUSSELS — Belgian lawyers have asked prosecutors to bring war crimes charges against Belgian officials allegedly involved in the assassination of Congo’s first democratically elected prime minister 50 years ago.

The group includes several prominent attorneys, the dean of Brussels University’s law school, and Luddo de Witte, a historian whose works sparked a parliamentary investigation into the killing of Patrice Lumumba.

The announcement Monday came just days before the June 30 celebration of 50 years of Congo’s independence from Belgian colonial rule. The event in Kinshahsa, Congo’s capital, will be attended by a Belgian delegation headed by King Albert II.

Christophe Marchand, who heads the legal team, says a dozen individuals will be named in the complaint. Under Belgian law, prosecutors are obliged to initiate a criminal investigation, since all the alleged perpetrators are Belgians, he said.

“The facts of what happened in 1960 and 1961, have been established and they make it clear that their actions fall within the definition of war crimes,” Marchand said in an interview. “This makes it possible to bring charges against those Belgians still alive who were active in Congo at the time.”

Marchand said he expected an investigating judge to open an inquiry by October.

“Now it is time for justice to be done,” he said.

Lumumba’s death shocked the world during the turbulent months following Congolese independence from Belgium. It also ushered in the long, corrupt dictatorship of Congo’s Western-backed leader Mobutu Sese Seko, who was finally overthrown in 1997.

A Belgian parliamentary probe found in 2002 that the government was “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death. Later that year, Brussels officially apologized for its role in his death.

The parliamentary inquiry determined that after being overthrown by Mobutu in a coup on Sept. 4, 1960, Lumumba was jailed in Kinshasa. On Jan. 17, 1961, Belgian officials spirited Lumumba and two of his government ministers away by plane to the breakaway region of Katanga where Belgian officers helped train the secessionist troops, it said.

“They were responsible for seizing, torturing and finally killing him,” de Witte, who has written extensively about the event.

The Belgian captain who commanded the firing squad was later given a new identity by the army and transferred to a Belgian brigade in the former West Germany to shield him from prosecution, he said.

“The established historical fact is that there was a direct link between (Belgian government ministers) and the Belgian officers serving in Congo’s breakaway region of Katanga,” de Witte said. “Those officers were clearly acting under ministerial direction at the time.”

Historians have established that the Belgians were not the only ones trying to eliminate Lumumba.

A U.S. Senate committee revealed in the 1970s that the CIA — which had determined that Lumumba had the potential to be an African Fidel Castro — had also hatched a plan to kill the Congolese leader by giving him poisoned toothpaste.

The CIA station chief in Kinshasa said he tossed the toothpaste into the Congo River.

“The Lumumba operation had a bit in common with the Iran and Guatemala operations, where CIA sought, and realized, regime change without actually conducting paramilitary (activities),” said Ken Conboy, a historian who has written extensively about U.S. covert operations in the 1950s and 60s.

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