Belgium mulls charges over 1961 killing of Congo's first elected leader

Prosecutors say there are two living suspects allegedly linked to assassination of Patrice Lumumba

Belgian prosecutors are investigating whether they can bring charges against people suspected of taking part in the killing of Congo’s first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, almost 60 years after his assassination.

Belgium’s federal prosecutor Frédéric Van Leeuw said on Wednesday: “We are in the process of taking stock of the prosecutions that could be launched. The facts have been qualified as a war crime, which has been confirmed by the Brussels court of appeal. This means there is no statute of limitations.”

Belgian authorities announced an investigation into the 1961 assassination in 2012, following a request from Lumumba’s family. Van Leeuw told Belgium’s LN24 TV channel the inquiry remained open. “There are still two people alive,” he said, referring to two suspects. “It is symbolically important that the justice system is concerned with this case.”

Lumumba became the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, days before his country gained independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960. He infuriated Belgium’s leaders with a speech at the independence day ceremony that cited the “ironies, insults and the blows” the Congolese people had suffered “morning, noon and night” during Belgium’s colonial rule. The charismatic independence leader also vowed to establish social justice and end “the oppression of free thought”.

But he soon became the victim of a power struggle, as order collapsed in the newly fledged state, as rebel groups in the mineral-rich Katanga province sought to break away. Lumumba was assassinated by firing squad in January 1961 in Katanga by Congolese rebels with Belgian officers present. He was 35. The Belgium government of the time, the CIA and MI6 have also been implicated.

A Belgian parliamentary inquiry in 2001 found that Belgian government ministers bore “moral responsibility” for events leading to his murder. King Baudouin, then reigning monarch, knew of the plans to get rid of Lumumba but did nothing to save him, MPs concluded.

Van Leeuw said judges had asked for access to the testimony to the parliamentary inquiry, which was given behind closed doors.

He said the inquiry was making progress, having found a tooth belonging to Lumumba among the family of one of the people suspected of destroying his body and those of two political allies, who were beaten and shot alongside him. Van Leeuw said the tooth had been kept “like a relic”, which “shows the mentality of these people”.

As politicians in the DRC and Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of Congolese independence on Tuesday, Belgium’s current monarch, King Philippe, expressed his “deepest regrets” for the brutality of the colonial past.


Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Belgium must return tooth of murdered Congolese leader, judge rules
Belgian policeman had admitted taking tooth from Patrice Lumumba’s body in 1961

Jason Burke Africa correspondent

10, Sep, 2020 @3:41 PM

Article image
Belgium to return Patrice Lumumba’s gold tooth in bid to atone for colonial crimes
Relic of the murdered Republic of Congo leader will be returned to his family as Brussels confronts its bloody past in Africa

Jason Burke Africa correspondent

18, Jun, 2022 @2:03 PM

Shedding light on Belgium's heart of darkness
The colonial past of Belgium still haunts the country, says Ian Black, as the ghost of Patrice Lumumba returns once more.

Ian Black

27, Apr, 2001 @2:03 PM

Article image
I'm a revolutionary, not a criminal, Congo's 'Terminator' tells ICC
Bosco Ntaganda faces 30 years in jail for alleged war crimes committed in DRC

Ruth Maclean West Africa correspondent

30, Aug, 2018 @3:30 PM

Article image
Congolese warlord sentenced over witness bribing in Hague court first
DRC’s Jean-Pierre Bemba already serving 18-year term for war crimes, with new 12-month sentence to run consecutively

Jason Burke Africa correspondent

22, Mar, 2017 @2:21 PM

Belgium accused of killing African hero
Evidence of direct Belgian government complicity in the execution of the Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba must be made public and those implicated questioned, a historian demanded yesterday.

Ian Black in Brussels

15, Jan, 2000 @12:36 AM

Article image
Belgium forced to reckon with Léopold's legacy and its colonial past
African-Belgians are angered by what they see as country’s refusal to engage with the issue

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

12, Jun, 2020 @9:26 AM

Article image
Belgium unveils plans to return DRC artworks stolen during colonial rule
Pledge marks first time items will be returned to Congolese ownership without waiting for requests

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

07, Jul, 2021 @3:38 PM

Article image
Belgium comes to terms with 'human zoos' of its colonial past
Sixty years ago, Belgium set up a live display of people from Congo for the 1958 world fair. Now the country is rethinking that legacy

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

16, Apr, 2018 @4:00 AM

Congo's colonial ghost | Khaled Diab
Khaled Diab: As we approach the 50th anniversary of independence, how successful has Congo's post-colonial experience been?

Khaled Diab

21, Apr, 2010 @12:30 PM