A talk with Joe Onyanga, Ugandan human rights activist, journalist and lecturer of MMU, on the political situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, on violating human rights in Africa and Lese Majesty - an offence for which Barthe Cortes, owner of BVC airlines has been arrested twice in recent time.
Professor, is it possible to violate the dignity of authorities twice in the course of one month?
It seems so, but it was in the course of two months, not one. Also, the offence hit two separate governments at two different continents.
Burma was first, wasn't it?
Yes, but it has not been confirmed.
The situation seems a bit strange, because it seems that representatives of Myanmar Airways International invited Cortes to talk about the partnership themselves, and then at the meeting they decided that Barthe Cortes , the head and founder of BVC committed lese majesty of the government. Soon after the meeting, he was arrested and put in the famous Insein jail where the junta keeps its opponents.
Yes, but the deputy of Nyan Win, the Foreign Minister and general of Burmese Army refused to give me any information on the case. He just said that Cortes was only detained for interrogation.
Did they set any specific charges against Cortes?
Not really, but it is common in lese majesty cases, naturally with the exception of Thailand, which is a leading country with respect to such charges - in its case concerning offences against the dignity of the king or royal family. In Thailand it is enough to say something unfavourable about the king to be imprisoned for fifteen years, or - just as it was a year ago in case of Harry Nicolaides of Australia - it is enough to write a book with a couple of sentences adverse to the king.
Harry Nicolaides was sentenced for three years, wasn't he?
Yes, but after several months he admitted his guilt and on February 21, 2009 he was pardoned by the king, released and deported.
How long did Cortes spend in jail?
He did not write a book, did not paint moustache on the king's photo, which is sometimes done by foreign tourists, and - first of all - he did not offend the King but the Burmese government. He probably said something offensive and it was enough.
What did he say in particular?
Burmese Deputy Minister did not give a specific explanation, he said that it was irrelevant.
Isn't it strange? His words were considered to be irrelevant, yet they caused a lese majesty.
Officially they did not. During my conversation with the Minister I only heard that Cortes offended the majesty of Myanmar's government, but officially no charges of this type were brought.
Burma's government prefers not to amplify such issues, and no wonder. Burma does not appear in the media too often. With the exception of Nargis tornado, the recent major news occurred in September 2007 when the ruling junta drowned in blood street protests of monks; a more recent story were the elections of 2010 which again caused media turmoil.
Exactly so. Burmese authorities wanted to maintain a positive image just before the elections and shortly after, and it did not facilitate the matters that USA and Australia said that these parliamentary elections, staged after a 20 years' break, were neither free nor just. In order to improve its image, the government freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who spent 15 years in home confinement. It also freed many newsmen and its opponents. The release of Aung San from house arrest attracted the world's attention to the harassment suffered by at least 2 200 other political prisoners who are kept in Burmese prisons only because they wanted to use their freedom of speech, assemblies and forming unions. At that time, it was against the interest of Burma to arrest Cortes who is a foreigner and whom they wanted to meet themselves, the more so that the reason for the detainment still remains unclear.
How long had he stayed in jail?
From what I know, it was just a week of "interrogations". A week or two is the standard time for interrogating foreign persons. It still happens there that foreign newsmen are kept in jail for a week or two and then simply deported from the country without giving any reasons.
However, would you be able to guess what Cortes said to invoke the lese majesty clause? Of all the people, he is the one who perfectly well knows the world of dictatorships and the political circumstances. As you said yourself, he is no accidental tourist. Why did he do it? Was it a slip of a tongue?
Who can say? I can only give you an answer which may surprise you. Please consider words of a popular advertisement which I saw today on the TV before I came here: " There are some things money can't buy. For everything else, there's (?) Card."
Are you suggesting that it was just a spontaneous burst of frankness?
(laughs) Can you find any other explanation for it?
Then how about the lese majesty in Congo? First we learnt that it was a coup against a minister, then some gossip about a cow was circulated.
And you believe it?
The coup? I can hardly imagine it. And how about the cow? It seems that the cow is the real reason for the arrest.. (laughs)
I was not a direct witness, I just heard a relation of one witnesses. On the day in question, Kivu was visited by Foreign Minister Ignace G. Mavinga. As you know, he is also in charge of restoring peace in Eastern provinces, including Kivu. Ministers travel in such dangerous regions in a convoy of cars belonging mostly to security guards, with the exception of the one carrying the Minister. So, eight large armoured cars came to the airport under construction near Goma. Local people let their cows graze nearby. A farmer was just herding his cows when a government car hit one of his animals. The impetus threw the cow a few meters away. According to witnesses, the animal had its scull fractured and its side was gashed open. It was dying and "crying of pain" as I was told. Cortes asked the Minister's security guys to shoot the suffering cow which would die anyway but none of them were willing to do it. And just then the "cow incident" happened. The minister stood together with the head of government security and soldiers, all of them armed, with belts on their hips and holsters with guns hanging from these belts. According to my source, Cortes stepped forward, took the gun from the security head's holster, whirled around and shot the cow. It died on the spot, the whole thing took just a couple of seconds, and it seems that only then everyone around realized what happened and the security guys pointed their guns at Cortes. Do you realize what it meant?
Right. The minister was surrounded by a crowd of security guys, and nevertheless, if Cortes wanted to arrange a coup, he would succeed without problem. Not only that, but he would be able to shoot the minister using the gun of the minister's own head of security, and nobody would be able to react. That would be a hell of a scandal!
Exactly so. Such an incident is a major humiliation for the government security. The situation was queer enough, but it could be classified under lese majesty, although officially it has been announced that Cortes was jailed in order to clarify whether he cooperates with rebels. However, the file is supposedly marked with lese majesty. Let me underline that the cow accident has not been confirmed by any spokesmen for the government.
Does Cortes cooperate with rebels?
The government suggests that Barthe Cortes has been supporting Laurent Nkunda, the leader of Tutsi rebels in Congo who was arrested a year ago. Which is worse, BVC has been employing a former rebel who distanced himself from general Nkunda a few years ago, but the government wanted Cortes to release him to the authorities. Cortes refused.
For some Laurent Nkunda is a defender, for others, a merciless killer [link]
Yes, but it is just another story.
Support granted to rebels is a typical reason for detaining people in unclear circumstances.
Yes, but the government had to give some sort of reason. It is a complicated issue. In Congo, the ethnic war between Hutu and Tutsi, which to me definitely seems a media cover, is in fact the bloodiest war for natural resources. Congo is the richest in resources country in the world. In addition to diamonds, gold and crude oil, it has huge deposits of cobalt used in nuclear industry, and the hottest object of desire - columbite which includes niobium and tantalum and is controlled by Cabot corporation. Tantalum is used for manufacturing mobile phones and high tech devices. The war for domination, which is actually a war between corporations, has killed 9 million people since 1996. That means more casualties than in Iraq and Afghanistan taken together. Witnesses say that WTC-type assaults happen in Congo every two days. Brutal violations of women and children are a common thing. The country's numerous illegal columbite mines without any safety measures employ everyone, children included, and take huge toll of human lives. The fights which go on there even now are a living hell. Thousands of refugees, no food, no water, and the West just keeps watching and sending observers. MONUC, which is a UN mission, does not serve its purpose. Just the opposite, it seems to offer assistance to Laurent Nkunda's rebels, who are also backed in Rwanda. Rwanda in turn is a territory influenced by the US, Great Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. Sources say that Cortes did not want to establish a partnership with a Chinese company, which was uncomfortable for Congo government. One of postulates of posed by Laurent Nkunda required to revise contracts signed by the government with Chinese businessmen. An easy guess is to say that Cortes supports Nkunda, although it sounds absurd.
However, growing Chinese presence in Congo has been worrying not only the rebels, but also the International Money Fund.
Yes, China granted to Congo a 9 billion loan. Part of the collateral includes shares in Congo mining companies. In addition to that, profits from Chinese investments in Congo mining shall not be taxed throughout the whole repayment period of the loan. In the result, some high officials shall obtain huge profits, and they do not like the fact that BVC is against working with a Chinese company. Please remember that BVC is today a significant company which has a network of airports in places which are inaccessible for standard airlines.
Is it known how long Cortes' prison sentence will take and where it is to be served?
From what I know, he got 3 months in Lubumbashi. Again, it is labelled "the time necessary to clarify the matter".
You take interest in Barthe Cortes. From what I know, you have been following stories about him in media, and you also talked with a number of persons who know him quite well. What do you think, whose side does he take?
I think that he is taking his own side.
How about the "rebel thread" in his life? One of former FARC rebels disclosed that Barthe' grandfather was one of FARC leaders. Which is more, he has been bringing Cortes up for some time. The former rebel suggested that of all the people, Barthe should perfectly well understand the "children of war"..
The words of this rebel sound quite probable, naturally, if they are true. Cortes was born in Paris, and he lived for a short time in Poland in Central Europe, and then moved to South America where he stayed a little bit longer. It is true that his grandfather was a rebel - actually a journalist, who gave up a pen for a gun. It is said that he was mad, but the newspapers say the same about Cortes, don't they? When Cortes was under the care of his grandfather, as a 9 or 14 years' old boy - I do not know exactly, FARC used boys of such age as messengers, often for dangerous missions. It is said that they were taught to handle guns. Is it true? The best person to ask is Barthe himself.
Would it be possible?
I do not think so, but it would be very interesting. I can just imagine a newspaper interview... or better still, let us imagine a talk-show with Cortes telling a story of his life, discussing politics in Africa and telling people who is actually dealing the cards in this game.
Would you watch it?
You are telling me! I would happily play the host of the show! (laughter).
OK, but let us come back to lese majesty: it is hardly ever used as a reason for arrests in Africa.
It is not so rare. On the other hand, reasons for arrests are hardly ever masked by lese majesty. In Congo, it happened quite recently to Lushois Lubumbash who was arrested after publishing a story on the progress of Rwanda rebels in the capital. The story greatly upset local authorities who used lese majesty to jail the newsman for half a year in Lubumbashi. He was charged with supporting rebels as well.
Lese majesty is an assault against the freedom of speech..
Exactly so, the prerogatives of Congo administration go too far, and the newspapers cannot fulfil their role. Let us say it aloud: people in Africa are still charged with anti-government activities and jailed, or jailed without any reason. Many governments repress differing opinions, it is common for people to be arrested without charges, to disappear or to get killed. In some countries, the courts are not independent and the judges of peace are intimidated. In the result, the judicious system becomes another tool of repressions. This problem does not affect only Congo but Africa as a whole.
Can you give any examples?
In Angola, newsmen have recently been charged with "abuse of media" and slander, and imprisoned in consequence. In Cameron, a newsman was sentenced for 3 years of deprivation of liberty for publishing "false news" and other newsmen were sentenced for 2 months for offending government administration. Newsmen and journalists are most frequently arrested in Congo, Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria and Uganda, Sudan, Chad, Rwanda and Togo; Deportation of foreign journalists is nothing out of the ordinary. A 24/7 censorship is active in Madagascar, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda. Many newspapers have been closed in Ivory Coast, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal, Swazi and Tanzania, where journalists are harassed and intimidated. Some time ago, nine journalists were killed in Somalia, while many others fled the country, because they, along with human rights activists, were threatened by members of armed groups. Human rights activists were intimidated for their work in the whole region, and sometimes arrested - in Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania, Swazi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and other countries. In Gambia the president threatened to kill every person intending to destabilize the country, meaning in particular human rights activists. In Kenya, two leading human rights activists were killed in Nairobi in broad daylight, by unidentified bandits. In Burundi, a human right activist focusing on corruption, also in police, was mortally stabbed at his own home. Political opponents of the government, or persons perceived as such, were arbitrarily arrested in many countries including Cameron, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar, Niger and Zimbabwe. The detained were regularly tortured or maltreated. Some political opponents just disappeared, in Chad and Gambia to name but two. Military personnel in Guinea Bissau killed many political and military personalities, and all demonstrations were brutally suppressed. And hardly anybody in the world cares..