Twenty-two men convicted over the 2001 assassination of former Democratic Republic of the Congo President Laurent-Desire Kabila have been released from prison after receiving pardons from current leader Felix Tshisekedi.
Among those released on Friday from the Makala prison in the capital Kinshasa was the slain president’s former aide-de-camp Colonel Eddy Kapend, who has always denied any part in the plot to murder Kabila, who was the father of Joseph Kabila, Tshisekedi’s predecessor.
Kapend left the prison by a jeep under escort. Hundreds of supposed supporters waited outside the prison and there were jubilant scenes as he drove through streets.
Another man, former intelligence chief Georges Leta, was also freed but did not appear at a release ceremony with the others due to ill health.
Laurent-Desire Kabila was gunned down in his office on January 16, 2001 by one of his bodyguards, who was then immediately killed.
The 22 convicted men were first handed death sentences.
Among those sentenced to death was Colonel Eddy Kapend, Kabila’s closest personal aide, who was found guilty of having organised what was described by the court as a “failed coup plot”.
The 22 were among 135 people who have been on trial for the murder. Around 40 other defendants were acquitted and about 50 were given prison sentences ranging from three years to life.
President Tshisekedi then commuted to jail terms last June.
He issued the pardon on December 31, several weeks after a coalition he formed with Kabila supporters ended.
The pardons are “for purely humanitarian reasons”, Deputy Justice Minister Bernard Takaishe told the 22 men at the ceremony, stressing that this did not amount to a “blank cheque”.
“You can’t just go out tomorrow and get yourself into the kind of situation which deprived you of your freedom,” he told them, adding that the pardon would not erase the men’s criminal record.
The measure was taken “quite simply because we want to put the country back on track, to bring some peace to the Congolese people”, he said.
The pardons are latest attempt by President Tshisekedi to win favour among Congolese by appearing to be cutting links with predecessor Joseph Kabila.
Already, Tshisekedi has arm-twisted more than half of the MPs to join his new political movement. 25 of 26 provincial governors have also joined the movement, leaving only Kabila’s young brother Zoe.
Joseph Kabila himself, has opted to move out of the capital, currently based far away.