Learned H. Dees serves as the Democracy and Human Rights Officer in the Bureau of African Affairs‘ Office of Regional and Security Affairs.
Two weeks ago, I attended a special screening of L’Affaire Chebeya, un Crime d’Etat, a moving documentary by Belgian filmmaker Thierry Michel. The documentary captures the lifelong struggle for justice of Floribert Chebeya, the most celebrated human rights activist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Chebeya, the film shows, was noted for his steely determination to fight against the many human rights abuses in his country. The screening of the film which documents his life, death, and the trial of his murderers was hosted by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which also sponsored a discussion about human rights challenges in DRC. Ironically, neither of these events could have happened in DRC, where the film is currently banned.
In fact, earlier this month, the movie’s director, Michel, was refused entry into DRC where he had gone to lead a discussion of the film. Because of a purported problem with his visa, Michel was put back onto the plane which brought him to Kinshasa. The film implicates high ranking members of the Congolese National Police including its former director, John Numbi, and also recounts the sordid details of the alleged conspiracy which led to his murder.
DRC media Minister Lambert Mende told reporters on July 10: “I have written to the people who wanted this film to be allowed to be shown on our territory, telling them that we could not, as a state, allow such contempt for our judicial institutions, that it would be better to wait.”
The DRC government is rightly concerned about the likely reaction to the film, which highlights the impunity which reigns in the country. The film leaves little doubt about the culpability of those implicated but leaves open the question of whether all those responsible for Chebeya’s murder will ever be brought to justice.
Chebeya was assassinated in June 2010 and after great international pressure, a half dozen police officers were brought to trial. The documentary portrays the weakness of judicial system in the DRC in which the most senior officer implicated through testimony remained immune to charges. Five officers — including police colonel Daniel Mukalay, the second-in-command of the police special services unit — were convicted of the murder. Four of those convicted received death sentences but three were convicted in absentia as they were still on the run. The fifth man convicted received a life sentence. An ongoing appeal trial opened in June. But the key question remains: will John Numbi, the alleged mastermind, be tried for Chebeya’s murder?
I had known Chebeya and his wife Annie for nearly 20 years. I last saw him in 2007 when he visited Washington when we talked at length about the human rights challenges in DRC. Floribert was a human rights lifer, having started out as a student activist in 1989 when he worked as an underground organizer during the height of Mobutu Sese Seko’s repressive regime. Despite his long career, he never lost his sense of optimism that things should and, indeed, could change.
After the political opening in 1991, the organization that he founded, the Voice of the Voiceless (VSV), led the human rights surge that highlighted the deplorable human rights conditions in the country. Although all human rights reports in what was then Zaire were political by nature, VSV focused on cases of ordinary Kinshasa residents who were often the victims of unaccountable government agents under successive regimes. VSV chose the cases of ordinary citizens as its raison d’être. It wasn’t the glamorous political fare but it was a key niche.
Floribert, with his oversized glasses and studious demeanor, often would go to the police, military, and security offices himself to ask about cases. Evidently this is how he met his death. Floribert was old school, and an incessant letter writer, forever asking the Zairian/Congolese government to explain the inexplicable; seeking a rationale for the latest incident of arbitrary detention torture or murder. Sometimes the government would relent and release the hapless victims. Most of the time, they would respond by threatening him. Floribert was arrested, detained, and threatened numerous times over the last two decades. He knew his work was risky. As his wife noted in the documentary, he gave 90 percent of his being to his human rights work. Annie had begged him more than once to do something else, but he was committed to an ideal.
The offices of VSV were always filled with ordinary citizens and family members of victims of human rights abuse. On any given day, you could also find international visitors and diplomats who had come to hear Floribert’s earnest take on the human rights situation. In 1994, he won the Reebok Human Rights Award for young human rights activists and with it, a $25,000 prize. In typical Floribert fashion, he donated the money to several other local human rights groups and created a victim’s fund to help victims of human rights abuse.
He left behind a wife and six children, and an army of admirers, friends and colleagues, in DRC, around Africa, and here in DC. Floribert Chebeya, may his soul rest in peace, was truly a human rights hero. The struggle for justice in DRC continues.