DR Congo military court sentences 51 to death over murder of two UN experts

A military court in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has sentenced 51 people to death, several in absentia, in a mass trial over the 2017 murder of two United Nations experts in a troubled central region.

Capital punishment is frequently pronounced in murder cases in DRC, but is routinely commuted to life imprisonment since the country declared a moratorium on executions in 2003.

Dozens of people have been on trial for more than four years over the killings that shook diplomats and the aid community, although key questions about the episode remain unanswered.

Zaida Catalan, a Swede, and Michael Sharp, an American, were investigating violence between government forces and an armed group in the central Kasai region in March 2017 when they were stopped along the road by armed men, marched into a field and killed

Their bodies were found in a village on March 28, 2017, 16 days after they went missing. Congolese officials have blamed the killings on the Kamuina Nsapu armed group.

Unrest in the Kasai region had broken out in 2016, triggered by the killing of a local traditional chief.

About 3,400 people were killed, and tens of thousands of people fled their homes, before the conflict fizzled out in mid-2017.

Prosecutors at the military court in Kananga had demanded the death penalty against 51 of the 54 accused, 22 of whom are fugitives and are being tried in absentia.

The charges ranged from “terrorism” and “murder” to “participation in an insurrectional movement” and “the act of a war crime through mutilation”.

According to the official version of events, pro-Kamuina Nsapu armed fighters killed the pair on March 12, 2017, the day they went missing.

But in June 2017, a report handed to the UN Security Council described the killings as a “premeditated setup” in which members of state security may have been involved.