Pleading for Elephants in Open Air Court by the Congo River

The public trial started on Tuesday the 19 of April 2016 on the steps of the Kisangani post office. At the base of the wide stairs, was the ample city park and beyond that the silent Congo River.

captain stands accused as Kis gathers
Captain Bosongo stands accused as Kisangani gathers below.

The public ministry had 5 cases against military for elephant poaching; the two from Opala (Lomami Park Zone), both cited the General Basekay Kamangala. The General, it is reported, supplies weapons to militias in exchange for ivory. These are the same maimai militias that rape, torture and pillage the isolated populations of the Lomami Park buffer zone.

the defendants
The defendants stand at the opening of the court: Captain Bosongo farthest from camera, then Captain Tshibangu from Bili Uere and beside him Lieutenant Asumani.

For the Lomami Park the most important cases to appear before the open military tribunal were those against:
Captain Bosongo of the 31st military region, based in Opala
Lieutenant Asumani of the 31st military region, based in Opala
And the civilian Akili Pichen , a go between with the maimai poachers.
The case of the Capt Tshibangu from Bili Uere Reserve, in the far north, also sites General Basekay.

kisangani stops to listen
Despite a relentless sun, Kisangani stopped to listen.

The Lomami Park hired a single lawyer to help with the prosecution. Tuesday morning the defense showed up on the stairs of the post office with 14 lawyers. Who hired them? Small officers in the army, having languished months in jail could not suddenly afford 14 of the country’s best lawyers.

captain Bosongo surrounded by his attorneys
A bevy of defense lawyers surrounds Captain Bosongo.

The general Basekay had not expected this public hearing, His repeated efforts at corruption did not succeed in releasing the defendants. The army, itself, at a very high level, has decided to put an end to elephant poaching among its ranks.

general Basekay
Somewhat grainy: The General Basekay in 2015.

Our estimate is more than 50 elephants killed with military weapons south of Opala, in the Lomami landscape, during 2015.

Day one:
The bevy of lawyers tried to throw out the case against Capt Bosongo : where was the ivory? (The Colonel who recorded the case at the military prosecutor’s office fled with the ivory to Kinshasa when his superior, General Basekay put him under pressure. The ivory was deposed at the high military court in Kinshasa).

is this your signature
“Is this your signature?,” Captain Malenge confronts Captain Bosongo.

The president of the tribunal, Capt Nseba Malenge, asked Captain Bosongo if he had indeed signed the deposition. “Yes,” he admitted, but then added that he did it under threat of being killed by the top military judge. Independent investigation showed that no military judge was present at the signing of the deposition.

Day two:

Court is in session
The court resumes.

Lieutenant Asumani insisted that it was not his signature on the testimony although he said that he had been questioned by the military police. The OPJ (judicial police) was called to testify. He affirmed that questioning had occurred and that Lt Asumani had signed.

I was obeying my superior
Lieutenant testifies: I just obeyed my superior.

The OPJ confirmed the lieutenant testified under oath that he had taken the ivory to the personal residence of General Basekay as the general himself had instructed him to do.

Paulin testifies as Lt Asumani listens
Paulin Tshikaya of ICCN testifies

The provincial Director of the Parks Institute, Paulin Tshikaya of ICCN, was asked to testify as he had written a warning letter citing the names of the various officers that were later apprehended with ivory in their possession. Paulin cited his own network of informants as revealing to him not only who was supplying arms and ammunition but also where the elephants were and who the actual poachers were.

bringing defendants to open court
Each day the defendants were picked up at the prison, delivered to the post office, then returned to the prison.

At this point General Basekay’s name had been brought before the public, published in the press, and was well known in the capital, Kinshasa, where this trial was being carefully followed.

The bevy of lawyers started using stall tactics. What cases should be heard together? What charges should be admitted? Was the actual composition of the tribunal correct? They had the president replaced…

Word came from Kinshasa. General Basekay was stripped of authority. His second, General Kabundi, assumed command.

The open court was only to last 10 days. The lawyer horde managed to move it away from the public. The post office steps went quiet. The judgments were delayed. The defendants were back in jail and waiting. It seemed that the tactics of Basekay’s lawyers for continual postponement would succeed. The public and the top military would forget and move on to other preoccupations.

In the meantime, pleading illness, General Basekay slipped to Kinshasa.

Governor Tokole instrumental
John Tokole, the new governor of Tshopo Province, in Opala.

Unfortunately for General Basekay the new Governor of Tshopo Province, John Tokole, and the interim commanding General of the 31st military region, Gen Innocent Kabundi, did not want the slaughter of elephants and corruption of the military associated with their names. They met in Opala, discussed the delays of the case and made a decision.

open air court underway in Opala
The open air trial reconvened in Opala. The Captain Makisa Kilanga was its president.

On the night of the 29th of May, a vehicle slipped away from the central prison with the accused. It made the all night trip to the Lomami River, crossed on the ferry and continued to Opala.

opala gathers to listen
Opala gathers to listen. Some were collaborators, many were victims of pillage or forced labor.

visiting the site where the tusks were stored
Final testimony was heard outside of Opala where ivory had been hidden. Captain Bosongo with the water bottle. Akili Pichen in handcuffs.

president of court asks for precision
The president of the court asks for precision.

final explanation without lawyers
Capt Bosongo’s final defense was without lawyers.

From the 30th through the 31st of May, in Opala, the final testimony was received. On June 1st 2016 the judgements were handed down.

Opala listens to the verdict
The citizens of Opala listened carefully to what was the end of a regime of military terror.

verdict pronounced
The president of the Court, Captain Makisa, delivers the judgement.

Capt Tshibangu wa Tshibangu: 3 years in top security prison of Ossio
Captain Bosongo Basosila : 3 years in top security prison of Ossio
Lieutenant Asumani: central prison of Kisangani waiting for a higher court to hear his case, a court that is able to insist on the appearance of Gen Basekay for questioning.
Mr Okondo Akili Pichen: Liberated – the six months he already served in prison considered adequate punishment.

Akili Pichen is released
Akili Pichen is liberated, Captain Bosongo is sent for three years to high security prison.

One Comment

  1. Sarah Hart
    Posted 2016-06-27 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Amazing story Mama!

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