BRUSSELS – A group of legal activists formally requested war-crimes charges Monday against a dozen Belgian government officials and military officers widely suspected in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first democratically elected prime minister.
Lumumba headed Congo's largest political party and became leader when Belgium granted independence to the country on June 30, 1960 after a century of colonial rule. Many in the West viewed the charismatic prime minister as a dangerous radical because he wanted to nationalize the new nation's lucrative, Belgian-owned gold, copper and uranium mining industry.
Historians generally agree that top Belgian officials and officers conspired to overthrow him, and that they organized and carried out his execution on Jan. 17, 1961. The death ushered in the long, corrupt dictatorship of Congo's Western-backed leader Mobutu Sese Seko, who was finally overthrown in 1997.
A U.S. Senate committee found in 1975 that the CIA had hatched a separate, failed plan to kill the Congolese leader.
Christophe Marchand, a Brussels attorney who heads the legal team, says a dozen individuals will be named in the complaint and he expects an investigating judge to open an inquiry by October. He refused to disclose any of the potential defendants' names.
The group of legal activists bringing the charges includes several prominent attorneys, the dean of Brussels University's law school, and Luddo de Witte, a historian whose works sparked a parliamentary investigation into the killing of Patrice Lumumba.
Belgian law provides for universal jurisdiction in war crimes cases, and several indictments involving killings in various African countries have already been issued, Marchand said. In this case prosecutors are obliged to initiate a criminal investigation since all the alleged perpetrators are Belgians, he said.
"Belgium has historically been very active in seeking justice in such cases," Marchand said. "But it has not been willing to do the same when the crimes were committed by the Belgian government itself."
The definition of war crimes as the "violations of the laws or customs of war," includes the murder of all unarmed civilians.
"The facts of what happened in 1960 and 1961 have been established and they make it clear that (these) actions fall within the definition of war crimes," Marchand said in an interview. "This makes it possible to bring charges against those Belgians still alive who were active in Congo at the time."
"Now it is time for justice to be done," he said.
Belgium became a colonial power in the 18th Century when its King Leopold II acquired a swathe of equatorial Africa surrounding the Congo River Basin. He quickly established a brutal system of forced labor that kept the population in conditions of slavery and resulted in the deaths of several million people. A June 30 celebration of 50 years of Congo's independence from Belgian colonial rule in Kinshasa, Congo's capital, will be attended by a Belgian delegation headed by King Albert II.
Historians have named Count Harold D'Aspremont-Lynden, Minister of African Affairs in Brussels, as the official who ordered Lumumba's transfer to the region where he was shot, and Capt. Julien Gat as the officer who commanded the firing squad. Both men have since died.
A spokesman for Foreign Ministry in Brussels said he had no immediate comment.
A Belgian parliamentary probe found in 2002 that the government was "morally responsible" for Lumumba's death. Later that year, Brussels officially apologized for its role in his death.
The parliamentary inquiry determined that after being overthrown by Mobutu in a coup on Sept. 4, 1960, Lumumba was jailed in Kinshasa. On Jan. 17, 1961, Belgian officials spirited Lumumba and two of his government ministers away by plane to the breakaway region of Katanga where Belgian officers helped train the secessionist troops, it said.
"They (the officers) were responsible for seizing, torturing and finally killing him," de Witte, who has written extensively about the event.
The Belgian captain who commanded the firing squad was later given a new identity by the army and transferred to a Belgian brigade in the former West Germany to shield him from prosecution, he said.
"The established historical fact is that there was a direct link between (Belgian government ministers) and the Belgian officers serving in Congo's breakaway region of Katanga," de Witte said. "Those officers were clearly acting under ministerial direction at the time."
Historians have established that the Belgians were not the only ones trying to eliminate Lumumba.
The CIA too had determined that Lumumba had the potential to be an African Fidel Castro, and had supplied a tube of poisoned toothpaste to be placed in Lumumba's bathroom. The CIA station chief later said he tossed the toothpaste into the Congo River.
"The Lumumba operation had a bit in common with the Iran and Guatemala operations, where CIA sought, and realized, regime change without actually conducting paramilitary (activities)," said Ken Conboy, a historian who has written extensively about U.S. covert operations in the 1950s and 60s.