Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence from colonial Belgian rule. On June 30, 1960, the new prime minister of the independent Congolese government, Patrice Lumumba, declared an end to the slavery of colonialism and a new beginning for the country and the liberation of the entire continent of Africa. But today, jubilee independence celebrations in the Democratic Republic of Congo are marred by ongoing violence and increasing political repression, in particular the recent murder of Congo’s leading human rights activist Floribert Chebeya. Meanwhile, repression is on the rise in neighboring Rwanda, as well, ahead of scheduled elections this August, which incumbent president Paul Kagame is widely expected to win.
Peter Erlinder, American attorney who was arrested in Rwanda last month, held for nearly three weeks, and released on health grounds. He is a lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. He was jailed shortly after arriving in Rwanda to help with the legal defense of an opposition presidential candidate charged with « genocide ideology. » Erlinder himself stands accused of violating laws barring the denial of the Rwandan genocide.
Alafuele Kalala, Congolese pro-democracy activist who ran for president in his country in 2006.
AMY GOODMAN: Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of Congolese independence from colonial Belgian rule. On June 30th, 1960, the new prime minister of the independent Congolese government, Patrice Lumumba, declared an end to the slavery of colonialism and a new beginning for the country and the liberation of the entire continent of Africa.
But today jubilee independence celebrations in the Democratic Republic of Congo are marred by ongoing violence and increasing political repression, in particular the recent murder of Congo’s leading human rights activist Floribert Chebeya. He was found dead in his car earlier this month, a day after being called to meet the national police chief. The Joseph Kabila government has announced several investigations and suspended the police chief, but no charges have been filed, and the cause of Chebeya’s death remains unknown.
Meanwhile, repression is on the rise in neighboring Rwanda, as well, ahead of the scheduled elections this August, which incumbent President Paul Kagame is widely expected to win. Two opposition leaders have been arrested. Dozens of opposition party members have been detained. Last week a critical journalist was murdered, a case in which Rwandan authorities deny any involvement.
American attorney and law professor, Peter Erlinder, was also arrested in Rwanda last month, and he was held for nearly three weeks and released on health grounds. Peter Erlinder is a lawyer at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and a past president of the National Lawyers Guild. He was jailed shortly after arriving in Rwanda to help with the legal defense of an opposition presidential candidate charged with “genocide ideology.” Erlinder himself stands accused of violating laws barring the denial of the Rwandan genocide. We turn now to Peter Erlinder, who joins us from the Twin Cities, from Minneapolis.
Peter, welcome to Democracy Now! How are you felling? What happened to you?
PETER ERLINDER: Good morning, Ms. Goodman. Of course, I’m feeling much better now that I’m out of detention, but it strikes me that the earlier piece with Pilger is actually an introduction to this piece, because the reality is that most people in the United States don’t know about the US support for the Kagame dictatorship or the US responsibility for about ten million deaths in the eastern Congo, most of which have been the result of the invasions of the Congo by Rwanda and Uganda in the 1990s and the continued occupation of the Congo today. There’s been a massive disservice done to the American people regarding the truth of their government’s involvement in Central Africa. And unfortunately, until we’re able to find the documents in the UN files that tell the other story, the entire world has been misled with respect to what happened in Rwanda in 1994.
AMY GOODMAN: Why were you arrested? Peter Erlinder, why were you arrested?
PETER ERLINDER: Well, you’ll have to ask that of the Rwandan government, wouldn’t you? I was having breakfast and a croissant, finishing a document that I was working on for my client, and six large men surrounded me and took me away from the hotel. As to why that happened, I suspect that only the Rwandan leaders know.
AMY GOODMAN: They claim that you tried to commit suicide. Is that true?
PETER ERLINDER: Well, it seems to me that there are so many more important issues to talk about, like the ten million people that have been killed in the Congo. The state of my health and getting through that issue, it seems—or that circumstance, seems to me to be not the most important question to talk about. And because it was necessary for me to go public in court, with all of the various ills that I have as a guy who’s getting older, I think I’ve made a complete record of all that up until now, and I’m not talking about that in the media. I’d rather talk about the conditions of the US support for the military dictatorships in Central Africa, which I think is the much larger question.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t you talk about who you were representing there and what is the situation in Rwanda today—
PETER ERLINDER: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: —and as it relates to Congo, as well.
PETER ERLINDER: OK, thanks a lot. Yeah, I went there to represent Madame Victoire Ingabire, who had left Rwanda before 1994 to study in Europe. She returned at the beginning of this year with the idea of running for the presidency against the current president, Paul Kagame. Within a few hours after she arrived in Kigali, she went to the memorial for the Tutsis who were killed in the genocide, and she raised the question as to why it was that there were only Tutsis that were memorialized, when even the government says that moderate Hutus and Tutsis were the victims. And based on her questioning of the Tutsi being the only victims, she herself was charged with genocide ideology.
When I arrived in Rwanda, she had been charged. And I went there to consult with her to see if there was anything I could do. And five days later, I was arrested myself, based on, we later found out, my writings, written in the United States that were published on the web in English, which is both a medium that most Rwandans don’t have access to and a language that they don’t understand. It would have to be translated into Kinyarwandan in order for the ordinary Kinyarwandan to—only ordinary Rwandan to know what my articles were about at all.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined from Washington, DC by the Congolese pro-democracy activist Alafuele Kalala, who ran for president in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006.
We welcome you to Democracy Now! on this eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the Democratic Republic of Congo under Patrice Lumumba. Your thoughts today about where your country is?
ALAFUELE KALALA: That’s a very—thank you. It’s a very difficult question. I think that the country is nowhere. It’s completely destroyed. In fact, it’s a nightmare for most Congolese, and they don’t know what fifty years of independence, formal independence, I should say, means. So, people are suffering. The country is completely bankrupted, at all levels. I say it’s a quintuple bankruptcy: political, economic, social, military, cultural. So, the country is nowhere. It’s completely destroyed. That’s what I can say in a few words.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the death of the human rights activist Floribert Chebeya?
ALAFUELE KALALA: Yeah, as I said it in my—just to summarize how I view it, it’s that this is a horrible murder that reveals the nature of the regime. It was shocking, but I was not surprised, because a couple of months ago I spoke with someone close to the Congolese government who told me, making a comparison between the Mobutu regime and the Kabila regime in the way they were treating human rights activists or human rights pro-democracy movement in the Congo. He said, during the Mobutu years, Mobutu was very cautious with human rights activists. Here we are dealing with people who don’t care, who arrest, torture and even kill pro-democracy activists and human rights activists. So that was told to me just a couple of months ago. And when this happened, I was shocked, but I was not surprised.
In fact, they tried to send a shockwave throughout the Congolese community, the Congolese society, in general, because if they can kill a leading human rights activist, a standing, leading human rights activist, respected in the world, what can they do of ordinary Congolese? And they are trying to frighten the human rights activists in the Congo not to take the ordinary tough stand against them.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, there—
ALAFUELE KALALA: So it’s a sad day for Congelese and for the world, I should say.
AMY GOODMAN: Eve Ensler and other women’s rights activists have been trying to shine the spotlight on what’s been happening in the eastern Congo, the massive number of rapes by soldiers and others there. People hear, and they think, what can we do? It’s so far away. Can you talk about the US role in the Democratic Republic of Congo?
ALAFUELE KALALA: Yeah. I should say, the past, the present and the future. What is happening in the Congo now, I summarize it saying that it’s fifty years of American foreign policy at work. The Americans played a role in the assassination of Lumumba; it’s a secret for no one. They put Mobutu in power and supported him unconditionally, allowing him to destroy an otherwise wealthy country. They knew everything that was happening. I would refer, if I had some time, to an editorial that Jim Hoagland put in the Washington Post in 1993 saying briefly that successive American administration knew everything that Mobutu was doing in the Congo, but they considered it to be a small Cold War tax on Zairians, as it was called at that time. So now, I am—OK, that was explained with the Cold War. I don’t think that it’s a complete explanation of the American role in the Congo. In my opinion, it shows the power and the influence of mining companies on the American foreign policy in the Congo, in particular.
Unfortunately, I thought that after the Cold War, the American administration was going to amend its act and allow the people of the Congo to chart a new course. Unfortunately, in the 2006 elections, they imposed—they worked with other Western countries to impose Kabila on the Congo. It was a sham election. And now we are witnessing a total collapse, deliquency of the country, because we are dealing with a widespread corruption on top of the violence that they use against even ordinary people, political activists, human rights activists. So, so far, to date, the US administration has—
AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.
ALAFUELE KALALA: —played a negative role in the Congo. Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have—
ALAFUELE KALALA: They also supported Rwanda in its invasion of Congo. So, so far, it has been a totally negative role in the Congo.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we will continue the discussion. Alafuele Kalala, Congolese pro-democracy activist, former presidential candidate in Democratic Republic of Congo, and Peter Erlinder, thank you so much.