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Congo: Government hearings continue into the ''Disparus du Beach''

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NAIROBI, 13 February (IRIN) - Government hearings in the Republic of Congo (ROC) regarding the disappearance of over 350 Congolese returning from exile in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo in 1999 are continuing in the capital, Brazzaville, with Army Inspector Gen Norbert Dabira having testified before the Tribunal de Grande Instance on Tuesday, the ROC government reported on Wednesday.
The case is based on the events of May 1999, when thousands of Congolese who had fled fighting that had plagued Brazzaville since 1998 chose to return to the capital, taking advantage of a "humanitarian corridor" established by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Numerous sources present at the time determined that over 350 individuals had "disappeared" during their return from exile. They have become known as the "Disparus du Beach" - those who disappeared from Brazzaville's port known as "le Beach" on the Congo river.

Since December 2001, a case against members of the Brazzaville regime - including President Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Dabira - has been pending before the High Court in the French town of Meaux for alleged crimes of torture, forced disappearance, and crimes against humanity.

However, on 9 December 2002, the ROC government filed a petition before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) seeking to prevent France from conducting such trials, stating that France had no right to exercise its authority on the territory of the ROC, which was an equal sovereign state. Moreover, a warrant issued instructing police to examine Sassou-Nguesso as a witness violated the "criminal immunity of a foreign head of state".

The ROC government had asked the ICJ to annul all investigation and prosecution efforts made by France, and sought to establish the ICJ's jurisdiction in the case. No action would be taken, however, "unless and until France consents to the Court's jurisdiction in the case", the ICJ stated.

France, the former colonial ruler of ROC, is today its main trading partner and provider of bilateral aid.

Following his hearing, Dabira reaffirmed his innocence and said he was at peace with himself.

"I've come out of this hearing feeling at peace, very happy to have been heard before the justice system of my country," the government report quoted him as saying. "I do not know that the French judicial system is any more competent than that of the Congo."

The report noted that about 40 other Congolese, most of them from the military and witnesses to the affair, had already testified before Judge Patrice Ndzouala, who is hearing the case.

[ENDS]

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