Judge murdered while presiding in massive DRC corruption trial

Judge Raphael Yanyi, presiding in the high-profile trial of a senior Democratic Republic of Congo official facing corruption charges, died on May 26. Three successive versions of the cause of his death have now been given – a heart attack, poisoning and stab wounds to the head. His family is calling for an independent autopsy to be conducted by international experts who are independent of the DRC government. Sentence is likely to be imposed on the three accused in the case on June 20, by another judge who stepped in to continue the case after Judge Yanyi died.

When the death of Judge Raphael Yanyi was first announced on May 26, the authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo said he had died of a heart attack. Now however two other versions have emerged. This week the justice minister and DRC's Deputy Prime Minister, Celestin Tunda Ya Kasende, said that an autopsy showed that the judge had died ‘a violent death, due to the blows of sharp points or knife-like objects, which were thrust into his head’.

It was earlier said by the DRC attorney general that he had died of poisoning. In the latest announcement, however, the justice minister said that while evidence of poison had been found in the body of Judge Yanyi, it was in ‘non-lethal doses’. According to reports in the wake of the announcement, the minister has confirmed that a murder investigation had now been launched. 

Judge Yanyi was presiding in a case involving corruption charges against Vital Kamerhe, 61, chief of staff of the DRC President, Felix Tshisekedi. The charges involve nearly $50m in public funds. After the death of Judge Yanyi, another judge was appointed to continue the case.

The publication 'Karibu Congo' reports that the family has questioned what is now said to be the official cause of death, claiming that Juge Yanyi could not have been physically assaulted ‘as he was always accompanied by his driver’. The publication also quotes the family as saying it wanted a further autopsy, conducted by international experts not linked to the DRC government.

Sentencing in the trial is due on 20 June with the State having urged a prison term of 20 years.

The trial is being held at the prison where Kamerhe has been detained since April. He and his two co-accused have both pleaded not guilty and claim that this is a political trial.

The Southern African Litigation Centre’s executive director, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, has commented on the death of Judge Yanyi. She said, ‘We call upon the government of DRC to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of this heinous crime’. She also urged that members of the judiciary and the legal community should be protected and measures put in place to ensure their safety.’

special crowd-funding effort has been set up for public contributions to help the family of Judge Yanyi. The site says the following: 'Judge Raphael Yanyi passed on on the battle front leaving behind a widow and three kids. We were all amazed [at] the deceased’s work ethic, as he was bravely contributing to the process of restoring good values in our dear country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. In appreciation to his devotion that has made him a martyr, let us honour his memory by giving a helping hand to the widow and the kids with a financial support. Who knows if by doing so you will produce a new judge among his three kids?'