U.N. Report Links Congolese Government to Murder of American and Swede

Suspect’s death in prison suggests authorities might be suppressing evidence.

Zaida Catalán at work with U.N. colleague Michael Sharp. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Morseby)
Zaida Catalán at work with U.N. colleague Michael Sharp. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Morseby)

A key Congolese suspect in the 2017 murder of two U.N. sanctions experts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was found dead in his cell two months ago with traces of insecticide in his stomach, according to a confidential United Nations report obtained by Foreign Policy.

The U.N. is still conducting tests to determine conclusively whether the suspect, identified in the report as Tshikele Kengayi, ingested a lethal dose of the poison. But his mysterious death in military custody has reinforced suspicions that Congolese authorities may be seeking to suppress evidence related to the murder of two U.N. experts, Michael Sharp of the United States and Zaida Catalán of Sweden.

The U.N. report—which was drafted by Robert Petit, a Canadian lawyer who leads a U.N. team monitoring the murder trial—includes circumstantial evidence suggesting that elements within the Congolese security forces, government informants, and local militia groups may have conspired to murder the two U.N. workers. Trial testimony from key military and militia members constitutes the “first public evidence of a potential involvement of members of the security services into the murders,” according to the report.

The three-page report confirms many of the key findings of a joint investigation into the murder published last month by FP, Radio France Internationale, Le Monde, Sveriges Television, and Süddeutsche Zeitung. It also marks the first time that a senior U.N. official has directly linked the Congolese government to the murder of the two experts.

The report, marked confidential, is addressed to the U.N. Security Council and signed by Rosemary DiCarlo, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs.

Sharp and Catalán were brutally murdered by a group of armed men while investigating reports of mass atrocities in the Congolese province of Kasai. The murderers, who documented the killings on a phone camera, identified themselves in the recordings as members of a local militia called Kamuina Nsapu.

But some U.N. police investigators and other international observers have long suspected that Sharp and Catalán were lured into a trap by Congolese government agents.

“So far, no one has admitted to directly participating in the murders of the experts,” DiCarlo wrote. But “a more coherent picture of the events at the crime scene is emerging, and the roles of key figures being detailed.”

The report cites concerns about Kengayi, who had been described by witnesses “as an important militia leader in the area of the murders, and a possible link to political sponsors of the militia.”

Kengayi “allegedly became ill after his evening meal and eventually died the next morning,” according to the report. “A toxicology report … revealed the presence, in his stomach, of a compound commonly used in insecticide. Further testing is planned to confirm if the substance was in lethal quantity.”

The case for a government conspiracy revolves around the precise role played by Congolese Col. Jean de Dieu Mambweni. Mambweni has been detained in connection with the murders but has not been formally charged.

The colonel had been in contact with some of the key figures, including Sharp and Catalán, before and after the murder, according to the report and other internal U.N. documents.

When Sharp and Catalán expressed an interest in carrying out fieldwork in Kasai, Mambweni is “presumed to have arranged” for them to contact Betu Tshintela, a military informant who served as the U.N. experts’ guide and translator, according to the report.

Tshintela and three Congolese men on motorcycles accompanied Sharp and Catalán on a field trip from the regional capital of Kananga to the small town of Bunkonde, where they hoped to conduct interviews with local militia leaders and civilians.

They were ambushed by armed men, who brutally executed Sharp and Catalán and reportedly shot one of the motorcycle drivers. Tshintela and the three motorcycle drivers have not been seen since and had been presumed dead. But the report cited unspecified “open source and other information that may call into question the presumption of death of some or all of these Congolese nationals.”

At the time of the crime, Mambweni was in phone contact with a suspect in the case, Jean Bosco Mukanda, a government informant linked to a local militia.

Shortly after the murder, Mukanda told U.N. investigators and journalists that the killing had been carried out under the order of local militia leaders. He initially served as the military prosecutor’s chief witness.

But Mukanda’s credibility has since been brought into question, and he has been arrested and now stands accused of participating in a conspiracy to murder the U.N. workers, according to the U.N. report.

Evidence compiled in the course of the trial “seems to support claims” that Mukanda served as a Congolese military “collaborator … rather than the happenstance witness he claims to be,” according to the report.

Mukanda’s laywer, Antoine Buandeko, said Tuesday that his client had no role in the killings.

“Jean Bosco Mukanda still claims he is innocent and will be cleared from all charges,” Buandeko told Radio France Internationale. “He is still a witness but never formally accused of anything.”

Mambweni has also denied any role in the murder. His attorney, Tresor Kabangu, told FP last month that it was too early in the trial to determine whether Catalán and Sharp were victims of a murderous conspiracy. But he said that Mambweni had merely reached out to Mukanda as “part of his duty to inform the people about the murder.”

The report also focuses on the testimony of two government informants, Thomas Nkashama and José Tshibuabua, who allegedly misled Sharp and Catalán into believing they had received a guarantee of safe passage in the area where they were murdered. While the two men have appeared as witnesses in the murder trial of Sharp and Catalán, they have not been charged with murdering the U.N. experts.

Nevertheless, their testimony, along with that of Mambweni, constitutes “the first admission into the record of evidence of a possible conspiracy by co-perpetrators not present at the murder site, and the first public evidence of a potential involvement of members of the security services into the murders,” the U.N. report said.

Kabangu, who also represents Tshibuabua and Nkashama, denied his clients were involved in the murder in a phone interview last month. He said they had reached out to militia members in the area the experts were visiting and were told it was safe. “They didn’t have a bad intent,” he said. “They made a phone call and were told it was OK.”

Despite mounting evidence of a military role in the murder, the Congolese military prosecutor overseeing the trial has stepped up cooperation with U.N. trial observers. “There has been no overt interference of the security services in the judicial process,” the report said.

But it noted that “key alleged perpetrators” remain at large and detention conditions are poor, allowing for possible collusion and interference.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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