One Step Closer to Justice for UN Experts Murdered in the DRC

The Chief of MONUSCO Office, Josiah Obat, displays portraits of two murdered UN experts, Zaida Catalan and Michael Sharp. ( Flickr )

The Chief of MONUSCO Office, Josiah Obat, displays portraits of two murdered UN experts, Zaida Catalan and Michael Sharp. (Flickr)

Suspected local militia members murdered United Nations experts Zaida Catalán and David Sharp in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on March 12, 2017. The murders were “the first ever of UN experts in the course of their work.” Now, after almost two years of an apparent cover-up by a group in the UN and the Congolese government, the truth is emerging. Multiple Congolese military and state officials who were previously regarded as witnesses have now been charged in connection with the crime.

Zaida Catalan, a 36-year-old Swedish-Chilean, and Michael Sharp, a 34-year-old from the United States, were UN experts investigating potential sanctions violations in the DRC. They travelled to the central region of Kasai in order to investigate armed groups in the region, recruitment of child soldiers, and reports of mass killings. Yet on the first day of their visit, on their way to the small town of Bunkonde, their car was shot and they were brutally murdered.

The Kasai region has been the site of mass violence between Congolese military and armed local militias since August 2016, killing thousands and displacing over 1.4 million. One of the main militias, Kamuina Nsapu, has been particularly violent after troops killed their leader in August 2016. Sharp and Catalán’s murderers captured the crime on a video recording, revealing key details about the perpetrators. The men’s uniforms matched those of the local Kamuina Nsapu militia. With this evidence, the UN’s Board of Inquiry pinned the crime on the local militia.

Yet a joint investigation by Foreign Policy, Radio France Internationale, Le Monde, Sveriges Television, and Süddeutsche Zeitung reveals that the UN disregarded or buried evidence implicating Congolese authorities in the murder. Joseph Kabila, the Congolese president from 2001 to January 2019, had been accused by human rights groups of instigating violence in the region to delay elections. Thus, a possible motive of the Congolese government for these murders is to prevent the discovery of government atrocities in the region. “The only people who would have wanted to shut them down had to be the government because of what they would find out,” said Sharp’s mother to FP in their investigation.

As the joint news outlet investigation proceeded and other UN lawyers began to look into the case, several inconsistencies arose. For example, the men in the video recording of the video spoke Lingala, a language commonly spoken in the Congolese military. Additionally, phone logs showed that main suspects in the case had spoken frequently to Congolese military officials leading up to and on the day of the murders.

First witnesses, now suspects, José Tshibuabua and Thomas Nkashama translated between Sharp and Catalán and several local militia members the night before the murder. They misrepresented the militia members’ warning that travelling to the next day’s destination would not be safe. They instead told the two UN workers that the militia members assured their safety. Catalán and Sharp’s local guide and translator, Tshintela, did not correct the false translation.

It turned out that all three men were government informants. Tshintela reported much of Sharp and Catalán’s information to Col. Jean de Dieu Mambweni, a powerful Congolese military officer who was running the operation to infiltrate the region’s militias. Mambweni’s phone logs reveal contact with many of the key players in the murder. In December 2018, Mambweni was arrested in connection with the murders, becoming the first member of the security services to be detained over the case.

Last week, Jean Bosco Mukanda, a government informant linked to a local militia, was indicted on charges of conspiracy and murder. Mukanda was a long-term key witness for the case and insisted that the murders had been carried out by a local militia. Additionally, he had been in frequent contact with Mambweni, raising suspicion around both men. The prosecutors in the DRC ultimately indicted Mukanda, the prosecutor Tresor Kabangu stating, “We understood that this was a man who took part in everything that happened. We said Mukanda knew too much and that he ought to be a defendant.”

Yet these indictments come after much resistance from the DRC and hesitance from the UN. Both the Congolese government and, in part, the UN appear to have been engaging in some sort of cover-up. The Congolese government wanted to hide the suffering they are causing their civilians. Meanwhile, the UN wanted to maintain their presence in the DRC and not anger the government. As one senior UN official said, “The UN kept running away from the truth, even if we had a clear indication from the start that the government was involved. The UN could not admit the government was involved—they would have to put an end to the partnership.”