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DRC: Unexpected release of two prisoners charged with corruption raises eyebrows

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Thursday, 14 January 2021 12:49

Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Slapped with sentences ranging from two and a half  to five years in prison in the 100 days programme trial, Modeste Makabuza and Benjamin Wenga were released on 8 January, with no formal reason given.

The 8 January prison release of Modeste Makabuza and Benjamin Wenga, head of the construction company Société Congolaise de Construction and director-general of the Office des Voiries et Drainage, respectively, has provoked outrage in Kinshasa.

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No formal reason has been put forth, even though both men were convicted in June 2020 on embezzlement of public funds and corruption charges in the 100-days programme trial – the same in which Vital Kamerhe was handed down a 20-year prison sentence. Félix Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff has not been set free, nor have his co-defendants, Samih Jammal and Muhima Ndole.

Tshisekedi’s unilateral decision

The announcement was made on the same day that deputy justice minister Bernard Takaïshe Ngumbi pardoned 23 inmates, including Colonel Eddy Kapend, sentenced for their role in the assassination of former president Laurent-Désiré Kabila.

According to our sources, Makabuza and Wenga were also included in a collective presidential pardon granted on 31 December 2020, despite the fact that such pardons technically exclude individuals convicted of corruption.

Makabuza was initially sentenced to one year of hard labour, while Wenga received a three-year hard labour term, but they were given harsher sentences on appeal: two and a half and five years of hard labour, respectively. Their convictions also rule out the possibility of parole.

Our sources also say that Tshisekedi took the decision unilaterally. Since the deputy justice minister is not authorised to issue orders, prime minister Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba tasked Eustache Muhanzi Mubembe with making the president’s decision official. And that is how, according to a person close to Mubembe, it came to be that the minister of water resources and electricity signed the order at Ngumbi’s home.

Lobbying or reparation?

Several human rights activists have publicly denounced the decision, which they say undercuts efforts to combat corruption and impunity. Some of Tshisekedi’s advisers, including some officials from the François Beya-led National Security Council, have tried to reach out personally to the individuals behind the protest movement.

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The decision was not unanimously approved by the president’s inner circle. Some close confidants condemned the “intense lobbying” directed at Tshisekedi, while others said they believe the decision “rights a past wrong”.