As the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrates 50 years of independence this week, the sons of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba announced last week they would seek war crimes charges against 12 Belgians they suspect of involvement in their father’s assassination. They will file a complaint at a Brussels criminal court in October.
By Robin van Wechem
“It is a father I am looking for, a father whom I still love, and I want to know why he was killed,” his youngest son, Guy Lumumba, told reporters in Brussels. “We are targeting the assassins. In Belgium, there are 12 of them. They are alive and we want them to answer for their ignoble acts before justice,” he said. The family’s lawyer Christoph Marchand will only reveal their identities to the investigating judge, but said the suspects include Belgian officials, police officers and soldiers.
Lumumba was the DRC’s first prime minister after it gained independence from Belgium in June 1960. Only three months later, Joseph-Desiré Mobutu took over power in a coup and had Lumumba arrested. He was sent to a prison in the province of Katanga where he was tortured and executed. His body was never found.
In 1999, a book by historian Ludo de Witte made the case that the Belgian government had played a significant role in Lumumba’s death. A parliamentary commission set up to investigate the allegations concluded in 2001 that Belgium had a “moral responsibility” for Lumumba’s assassination. The government apologized to its former colony, but no further legal action was taken.
Lumumba’s three sons, however, asked a group of lawyers, headed by Marchand, to investigate the possibility of filing a complaint based on international law. “We analysed the facts and the juridical situation and we concluded that the situation in Congo at that time qualified as an international war and that Lumumba’s murder qualified as a war crime,” Marchand says.
“The commission wrote that Belgium had moral responsibility but it did not carry out the juridical consequences. All the facts are proven, but the next step, to court, has never been taken.”
While murder charges have a ten-year statute of limitations in Belgium, war crimes charges never expire. Marchand therefore chose to use the context of an international war to frame the different offences in the Lumumba case as war crimes.
“We are not only talking about the murder of Lumumba but also about his arrest, his transfer to Kinshasa, the torments during and after that flight and the fact that he didn’t get a trial and was killed without a judgement. These are all examples of war crimes,” he told the IJT.
War crimes don’t only include collective crimes but also individual cases and actions, says Marchand. “Crimes against humanity need several victims to prove their systematic character. [...] International courts have already ruled on single facts and not only on systematic criminal practices. There have been cases wherein one fact has been labeled a war crime.”
Philip Reyntjens, expert on the Great Lakes Region at the University of Antwerp, says the complaint is outright nonsense. “This is not a genocide or a crime against humanity. This is a murder and murder [charges expire].” Regardless of the Belgian government’s responsibility, he argues, Marchand’s case doesn’t hold water. “The people still alive in the case were only indirectly responsible, they were accessories but not responsible. This is ridiculous, it was a sole murder of a sole politician. It has nothing to do with war crimes.”
Legal scholar Larissa van den Herik points out some requirements necessary to secure a conviction of war crime in this case. “Most importantly”, she says, “was there an armed conflict at the time the murder took place? Secondly, was it an internal or international war? If it was internal, the question arises whether war crimes committed were accepted as international crime at the time.” Van den Herik concludes that “it seems that there are quite some impressive legal hurdles ahead of the prosecution in this case.”