Global Policy Forum

Dutch Court Puts Former Congo Officer on Trial in Torture Case


By Marlise Simons

New York Times
March 25, 2004

For almost four years, Sebastien Nzapali, a former military officer from Congo, was hoping for political asylum in the Netherlands. But Mr. Nzapali, who asserted that he had been persecuted, appeared in a Dutch court on Wednesday to answer charges that he himself was a persecutor. He is charged with torture and rape committed in 1996 during the rule of former President Mobuto Sese Seko in the country then known as Zaire. As he faced Mr. Nzapali, a slightly built man, the prosecutor cited a long list of abuses and said, "Many people knew him by his notorious nickname as `The King of the Beasts.' " The prosecution said Mr. Nzapali earned that name because he treated people like animals, abused his authority, locked up people at will and brutalized and raped prisoners. In the unusual trial that opened Wednesday, Mr. Nzapali, 51, is being prosecuted in a Dutch court for violating the 1984 United Nations Convention Against Torture. His trial is considered an important test case for the Netherlands and other countries that are parties to the convention but have rarely or never applied the laws flowing from it. Lawyers said the case against Mr. Nzapali was an example of the gradual widening of international laws that allow courts in one country to judge human rights crimes committed in another regardless of the person's nationality. Until now, human rights trials in European national courts have been prosecuted as war crimes or genocide cases, but the torture convention is not known to have been used in a conviction, lawyers said. In 1998, Britain arrested Chile's former president, Augusto Pinochet, at the request of Spain, because both countries were parties to the torture convention, but he was later released because of ill health. Other countries, including France and Switzerland, have arrested foreigners on charges of committing torture elsewhere, but the accused were either released or they fled.

Court officials said that Mr. Nzapali, who arrived in the Netherlands in 1998 and requested political asylum, was denounced to the police by fellow countrymen who said they recognized him. Dutch investigators traveled to Congo to look into the charges, and last September Dutch police arrested him. Since then, court officials have also visited Congo to take sworn statements from witnesses and supposed victims. Mr. Nzapali's case is being heard by a panel of three judges, but no jury. The president judge quoted at length from the testimony on Wednesday. One woman testified that she had been kept locked up by Mr. Nzapali for two weeks. Another witness said he had been stripped and beaten three times a day on orders of Mr. Nzapali. The prosecution said that as a colonel in the civil guard and commander in charge of the province of Matadi, the defendant acted with impunity. Mr. Nzapali denied all the charges. "All this information is completely wrong," he told the judges on Wednesday. "I am not an animal." After the hearing, which lasted one day, court officials said they expected a verdict in two weeks.

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