Briton Joshua French facing death in Congo pleads for help

The Times of London
Kisangani, DR Congo

In a grimy cell in Kisangani prison, Joshua French, a former British soldier, sits on a plastic chair, an electric fan stirring the humid air above his head.

Groups of soldiers and police with AK47s loll about outside the jail — a red-brick fortress in the heart of this bombed-out tropical city by the Congo River. Open sewers pass around the perimeter of a large courtyard lined with stinking, mosquito-ridden cells. French, 27, who has dual British and Norwegian nationality, and his friend, Tjostolv Moland, 28, a former Norwegian soldier, face death by firing squad after a military tribunal convicted them of murder and espionage in September.

The men deny shooting Abedi Kasongo, 47, a driver who was killed — shot in the head — 70 miles east of Kisangani in early May. They say unknown gunmen ambushed them in a lawless part of a vast country ravaged by decades of civil wars.

In an interview with The Times, French rejected claims by prosecutors that the motive was theft. “We don’t have any interest at all in killing the driver of a vegetable truck on the only road in the area. We had enough money to buy our own car if we wanted,” he said.

He admitted, however, that Moland was armed with a pump-action shotgun on the night, which meant the pair were tried by a military tribunal rather than a civilian court — though the driver of the truck was not killed with a shotgun.

They also had Norwegian military identity cards, leading Captain Claude Disimo, chairman of the tribunal, to call the pair “de facto intelligence agents for their country”. He handed down multiple death sentences for murder, attempted murder, illegal possession of weapons, armed robbery, formation of a criminal organisation and spying. He also ordered the Norwegian Government to pay $60 million (£36 million) in compensation, a dollar for every Congolese citizen. Jonas Gahr Stoere, Norway’s Foreign Minister, called the sentences “completely unacceptable” and denied his Government had any role in the case. British and Norwegian diplomats have followed proceedings, regularly attending the tribunal and visiting the men in prison. The tribunal has been accused of bias and using weak evidence and unreliable testimony.

French was born in Norway to a British father and Norwegian mother. He lived in Margate as a child but moved back to Norway with his mother when his parents divorced.

He then returned to Britain, aged 20, hoping to join the paratroopers but a weak ankle and medical discharge meant his British Army experience was limited to “basically making a lot of coffee for the majors and colonels”.

The two men met in the Norwegian Army a few years later. French was by then a sniper in the Telemark Battalion. By 2007, they had both left the military for a life of adventure in Africa, one that led, eventually, to a death in the night in Congo.

French joined Moland in Kampala where he had established a risk consultancy and private security company called SIG (Uganda) Ltd. In April, they rode a motorbike to Kisangani. They entered Congo as tourists intending to have an adventurous holiday, while keeping an eye out for business opportunities. They took with them Moland’s shotgun “for personal protection”. After their motorcycle broke down, they hired a pick-up truck from Kisangani to take them back to Uganda. Mr Kisongo agreed to take them for $400 and they set off with two other Congolese passengers.

A few hours later, in uncertain circumstances, Mr Kisongo was dead and the two foreigners were on the run. The two Congolese passengers later testified for the prosecution. Fearing Congo’s notoriously corrupt and trigger-happy security services, French and Moland fled to the jungle of Epulu National Park where they survived for more than three nights before being arrested in a hail of bullets.

Five armed men stopped them on the road one night. “For up to two minutes there were five guys shooting and shooting and shooting. It was insane: I was trying to surrender,” recalled French. He said that after being trussed up, he was subjected to a mock execution. Moland, who had escaped again, was picked up two days later. In the meantime, French was paraded through villages all the way back to Kisangani. “I was displayed as their trophy in every village. The police would slap me and spit on me to get amusement” he said. “Then the lynch mobs would gather; they really freaked me out.”

The appeal has not gone well. A couple of weeks into the retrial, Moland contracted cerebral malaria and “went mad”, as he put it himself.

Andr? Kibambe, his Congolese lawyer, said: “Moland is sick. I knew him in the first round [of the trial] and in the second, I met a different person.” Last week Moland told the tribunal that he was a mercenary and an incarnation of Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare, a notorious hired gun who fought in Congo in the 1960s.

“This is a raving madman talking,” said Marius Dietrichson, his Norwegian lawyer, said . “It is brutal to continue the trial when he has psychosis.”

“Yes, we made some wrong choices but it was circumstances that got us in this situation,” said French. “It’s a mess, man.” He said he hopes thatBritain or Norway will find a way to pressure the Congolese Government to release them.

French sits in his filthy cell awaiting the appeal verdict due this Saturday. In a restaurant on the bank of the Congo River, Mr Kibambe also waits, but with little hope.