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German justice in DRC

Katrin Matthaei / cm
May 8, 2013

German authorities are examining a case in which a German manager who worked with a timber company in the DRC is accused of allowing local security forces to carry out a brutal raid against Congolese villagers.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Only the inhabitants of Bongulu, a remote village in north-eastern DR Congo, know what really happened on a particular night, two years ago. Statements from company representatives and Congolese authorities differ widely. The basic facts, however, are not disputed. About 60 police and soldiers raided the village. They beat up men and women, burnt down houses, bundled men on to trucks and beat them again before forcibly driving them to a police station in Bumba, the district's capital. The men were later released.

The security forces were sent in by the Congolese timber company Siforco. The company says they called in the police to recover equipment which villagers had stolen two weeks previously. The villagers admit to this, saying they had wanted to put pressure on the company as they were fed up with delays in building a school and a clinic for which contracts existed.

Tree trunks cut down are carried by a tractor. Copyright Imago Photoshot Balance Excavators l
The Democratic Republic of Congo is rich in timberImage: imago/Photoshot/Balance

It's true, the work had not been carried out, admits Olof von Gagern, a board member of the Danzer group who was on Siforco's board of directors at the time of the raid. There simply had not been enough money to build the school and the clinic, von Gagern told DW. He does not dispute that the trucks, the fuel and the drivers for the raid were provided by Siforco. This was normal, because of the security forces' lack of equipment, he claims.

Human rights accusations

Now the scene has switched to Germany. At the time of the raid, Siforco was the Congolese subsidiary of the German-Swiss group Danzer. It is one of the most important wood processors in the world, and has been awarded the prestigious FSC certificate for its social and sustainable economic policies. But German manager Olof von Gagern has been criticized by two human rights organizations, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and Global Witness.

They have brought charges against him, arguing that he could have prevented the use of excessive force. Miriam Saage-Maass of ECCHR says Siforco must have seen this coming. "A company that has worked for more than 20 years in the Congo, and a manager who is responsible for many years in the African market and particularly in the Congo Delta, must be aware of the use of violence by local authorities and the local security forces, " she said. "They know that if you call in the police, then the probability that there will be an excessive use of force is very high."

The accused manager, Olof von Gagern, has rejected all allegations. However, he says he sympathizes with the villagers. "What happened is extremely unfortunate, but it was in no way endorsed by us," he told DW. The company has already paid 23,000 euros ($30,000) in compensation.

The long arm of the law

Von Gagern casts doubt on some of the statements made by villagers. He says it is not clear whether women were actually raped as had been claimed. He believes the legal action stems from a campaign by various NGOs which want to drive timber companies like Siforco out of the DRC. Whether the Public Prosecutor in Tübingen can initiate legal proceedings against the manager depends on whether there is sufficient evidence that a crime was committed. It is possible for a German court to take legal action against a German living abroad who has broken German law.

A young African boy writes on a school blackboard +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
The villagers of Bongulu say they've waited long enough for a school for their childrenImage: picture-alliance/ZB

Martin Heger, professor of criminal law at the Humboldt University in Berlin, told DW it all comes down to the burden of proof. "You would have to actually have evidence that this particular person knew what happened there, and that he approved of it.“

The plaintiffs realize they have only a slim chance of getting a conviction. Nevertheless, they feel they have achieved their goal which was to start a public debate on the legal responsibilities of German companies doing business abroad.

There is also some good news for the villagers. Von Gagern says work on the school and the clinic should finally start this year.