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3 Americans are on trial for a failed coup in the Democratic Republic of Congo


A trial is underway in the Democratic Republic of Congo - among the defendants, three Americans accused in a failed coup attempt against that country's government. The prosecution says they livestreamed their attempt last month to take over that country. It failed. Six people were killed, dozens were arrested. They've been charged with terror offenses and face the death penalty. Emmet Livingstone is a reporter based in Kinshasa, the capitol of D.R. Congo. He was at Friday's court hearing, and he joins us now. Hi Emmett.

EMMET LIVINGSTONE: Hi, Lauren. How are you?

FRAYER: Good. So can you tell us first the story of this failed coup? What happened?

LIVINGSTONE: So the exact chronology of events isn't quite clear, and it's something that's expected to come out during the process of the trial. But what we know at the moment is that on May 19, very early in the morning, a group of armed men attacked at the home of a very senior Congolese politician called Vital Kamerhe. There was a shootout in which some guards were killed, but they didn't manage to kill the politician. And then the armed group invaded a government complex, so a presidential palace that's used as an office by the president. And it was there that they unfurled flags and said that they were founding a new state, New Zaire. And at this point, Congolese soldiers caught up with them and managed to disperse them, and they killed the coup leader in the process.

FRAYER: And that was the father of Marcel Malanga, who is now one of the defendants on trial. What can you tell us about the Malangas, the father and son?

LIVINGSTONE: So yeah, that's right. So the coup leader was a man named Christian Malanga, who was born in Congo and then became a U.S. resident. So he founded an opposition party in exile. And he had been known to security services for a long time, including under the previous government in Congo, as being someone who was a potential threat, but he was considered a very minor threat. And he burst back onto the scene on May 19 after having come back to Congo and trying to launch his coup. He was supposedly quite a well-known figure in the Congolese diaspora as well.

FRAYER: So Christian Malanga was killed. His son, Marcel Malanga, is on trial. And who were his co-defendants?

LIVINGSTONE: So there are 51 defendants in total. Most of them are Congolese. Then there are the three Americans of which Marcel Malanga is described by the prosecution as being the leader, essentially the No. 2 in command of the group, the surviving No. 2. Then he has - so his two other U.S. citizens who are being tried alongside him. One is from Utah. One is from Maryland. It's not clear at this stage, at least to me, how they got involved in this coup attempt. There are other Western nationals. For the most part, Congolese born people who then got a second passport or moved away. So there's a Canadian, a Belgian, a British national as well, and the rest are mostly from Western Congo, and they seem to have been people who were picked up along the way during the coup attempt.

FRAYER: The defendants appeared in an open-air military court on Friday. You were there. What did you see? What happened?

LIVINGSTONE: So on Friday, the defense lawyers for various clients were trying to make the case that statements that had been signed by the defendants weren't reliable. And the arguments varied depending on the client. But in the case of the three American citizens, lawyers were arguing that after the coup when they had been captured, they had given statements in English, which had been misunderstood by the military investigators. There was a Canadian national, as I mentioned, and his legal team told the court that he had been tortured so that his confession had been extracted under duress. And then there were other arguments that were being made. Some lawyers were saying that the military tribunal wasn't fit to prosecute the defendants and that it should be a civil trial.

FRAYER: What's next in this case? What's the next step?

LIVINGSTONE: On Tuesday, there is another hearing and the military prosecutor is expected to respond to some of the demands made by defense counsel. But it's unclear how long this is going to go on for. Lawyers that I have spoken to have suggested that this could take a very, very long time.

FRAYER: That's reporter Emmet Livingstone in Kinshasa. Thank you very much.

LIVINGSTONE: Thank you, Lauren. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.