It has been one year since indigenous Batwa Chief Jean-Marie Kasula and seven others were convicted and imprisoned last February for attempting to reclaim their traditional lands within Kahuzi-Biega National Park (PNKB), Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). https://www.initiativeforequality.org/indigenous-batwa-sentenced-prison-reoccupying-traditional-lands/
Since that time, the legal appeal that was immediately filed by Réseau Congolais des Forestiers (RCF-RDC) has still not been heard, the prisoners have been very sick from poor conditions inside the jail at Bukavu, and Kasula has been relentlessly pursued by the PNKB, including making dangerous false allegations against him, leading to death threats and now a second arrest. In addition, false allegations have been made against the organizations that support Kasula and the indigenous communities that were expelled from the Park lands back in 1975. https://www.initiativeforequality.org/false-allegations-pose-grave-danger-batwa-chief-kasula/
It appear that the continuous harassment and false allegations against Kasula and those who support him are not really based on any illegal or harmful activities, but are actually directed at stopping the Batwa people from asserting their land rights. Furthermore, by circulating threats and false allegations, the Park managers are attempting to create a rift between different organizations working to support indigenous rights in the DRC.
Initiative for Equality (IfE) calls on all Batwa rights organizations to remain united in support of indigenous land rights and the well-being of the Batwa people in and around Kahuzi Biega National Park, and for the protection of the legal rights, indigenous rights and human rights of Chief Jean-Marie Kasula.
Overview of the arrest of Kasula on 21 January 2021 and subsequent days
Update on 24 January : Many people have received several videos and photos documenting the arrest of Chief Jean-Marie Kasula inside Kahuzi Biega National Park (PNKB) on January 21, 2021. These videos were released by ICCN / PNKB and REPALEF , very soon after the arrest. Here is an overview of the arrest, the circumstances and the implications.
According to a press article, Jean-Marie Kasula was arrested for violating his prison release conditions, by leading a group of men to carry out illegal mining activities in the PNKB. https://www.environews-rdc.org/2021/01/22/kahuzi-biega-pour-avoir-recidive-kasula-retombe-dans-les-mains-de-la-justice/
Kasula’s lawyers carried out a quick inquiry at the villages, speaking with members of his community. They learned that Kasula had been told of a mining site where young people were digging for minerals by hand, so he went to see it with a former PNKB guard. He was clearly not the person who organized the mining. In fact, most of the people there didn’t know each other. But as the PNKB / ICCN had alleged (in October) that Kasula was organizing a mining site inside the park, it was extremely convenient for them to be able to arrest him at a mining site. It will take a full investigation to determine what really happened, and witnesses will need to be questioned at any trial.
A large contingent of eco-guards showed up while he was there, along with at least three photographers, and he was arrested on camera. Meanwhile, if you watch the videos closely, you will see that it appears to be a scene from a film production. There are at least 3 photographers filming during Kasula’s arrest, and the soldier who takes him by the arm recites a script, citing previous accusations against Kasula. They laugh at Kasula, and he’s so terrified that he starts to apologize and beg for forgiveness (see shorter video). It’s not an admission of guilt – it’s a statement of fear.
We have the following questions:
Eco-guards do not normally patrol this part of the park. Why did they show up when Kasula was there?
When and why had the eco-guard (the one who takes Kasula by the hand) memorized the statements about his previous conviction?
Why were there so many active photographers at the time of the arrest? Did they plan this in advance?
How did these videos and photos circulate on WhatsApp immediately after the arrest? Was this distribution part of the PNKB plan? Did REPALEF collaborate with the park in this distribution?
Once again, the NGOs and CSOs that support the Batwa around the PNKB are accused of having incited Kasula and the other indigenous peoples. But what really prompted the Batwa to try to reclaim their land inside the park? Was it because of the encouragement of supporting organizations? or was it because of the bitter disappointment when the PNKB / ICCN did not keep its promises of land and other assistance?
Update on 30 January : After being arrested by the PNKB ecogardes on Thursday 21 January, Kasula and the other detainees were held at Tshivanga for several days (due to some kind of disturbance that prevented use of the roads), and eventually taken to the prison at Kabare, a place with a bad reputation for how Batwa are treated and for using torture to extract bribes from prisoners (https://www.radiookapi.net/2021/01/27/actualite/justice/sud-kivu-caritas-et-long-ppi-denoncent-des-cas-de-tortures-dans-les?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+radiookapi%2Ffeed+%28Radio+Okapi%29). It is also reported that the head of that prison has a close relationship with the PNKB, and is in fact frequently driven around by armed ecogardes. Kasula should have been taken to Kavumu, and the fact he was taken to Kabare may mean that the Park is looking to control the outcome.
The attorneys filed for provisional release of all those arrested (5 or 6 people), including Kasula, but only managed to get an elderly man and a young teenage boy released.
On Thursday 04 February, the hearing for the original appeal of the conviction of one year ago is scheduled to take place. At this hearing, the fate of all 8 original prisoners is to be determined.
Update on 03 February : The hearing that was supposed to take place in Kavumu, regarding the latest arrest, did not happen because the prosecutor “forgot” to read the file and therefore didn’t show up in court. So Kasula is still in prison in Kabare for the moment. The hearing was tentatively rescheduled for Friday of this week, in a mobile court at Kabare.
After leaving the court at Kavumu on Wednesday, the attorneys were held up at machete-point when they stopped along the road to fix a tire. All their phones, money, jewelry, etc. were stolen, but the legal papers were given back to them. No one got hurt physically. It appeared to be local young men out to make some fast money.
Update on 04 February : The hearing scheduled for Kasula and the other seven today was delayed again. This time it was not just this case, but many other cases that were called off, due to the absence of a key person from the court. The court was filled with defendants and attorneys, and the attorneys were so disgusted that they all walked out (not just the ones for the “Kasula Eight”). They were told that the hearings would take place next week.
The hearing on Kasula’s recent arrest is scheduled for tomorrow, 05 February, in Kabare.
Update on 05 February : The hearing on Kasula’s second arrest was held at Kabare (but with judges from Kavumu) today. Our attorneys asked for him to be released “provisionally” (i.e. until the full hearing takes place). The court will announce their decision on Saturday (tomorrow). However, a team from PNKB came in and attempted a legal maneuver which our attorneys had never seen used before, which would allow them to re-arrest him on the grounds that the two cases (original conviction and recent arrest) were integrally linked. Our attorneys argued against this, of course, but fear that he will be re-arrested immediately if he is let off on Saturday. It’s clear that the PNKB will not rest until they have Kasula stopped.
Update on 07 February : As predicted, Kasula was re-arrested from the prison in Kabare, and taken back to the prison in Bukavu, on the grounds that he violated the terms of his “provisional release” during the appeal of the original conviction. The attorneys say the process used was not appropriate for this particular case.
The decision on his provisional release during the appeal of the recent arrest, which was promised to be handed down on the weekend, did not come through. This means we are awaiting two decisions during the week of 08-12 February:
(1) the big decision on the appeal of the original convictions of all 8 people; and
(2) the smaller decision on Kasula’s provisional release during the appeal of the recent arrest.