This morning, the family of Tjostolv Moland, a Norwegian man sentenced to death in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), released a statement in his memory explaining that he died in prison yesterday. Moland’s father’s statement does not give the cause of death, but his castigation of Doctors Without Borders for failing to minister to his deathly-ill son suggests sickness was the cause of his passing. I have enormous sympathy for all who die in Congolese prisons, whether guilty or not. To describe the conditions as abysmal is an understatement. The physical facilities are appalling, of course, but it’s the opacity and lack of accountability of the legal system that I imagine inflict the harshest torture.
Moland’s case contains so many inconsistencies and holes it seems it will never be possible to know the full story. Together with his friend and business partner, Joshua French, he was convicted of spying for the Norwegian government and murdering their driver, Abedi Kasongo, in May 2009. Moland and French received the death penalty, and the military court that convicted them (never mind that military courts are supposed only to try the Congolese security sector) demanded $500 billion in damages from the Norwegian government, a request later reduced but never received. Moland and French had been setting up a private security company in Kampala at the time of their arrest. Their driver was killed near the Ugandan border. Moland and French say the culprits were unidentified armed men, who attacked them on the road. One of the prosecution’s key pieces of evidence, a photo of Moland smiling and washing what is alleged to be their driver’s blood from the interior of their car, seems open to interpretation -- to put it mildly. At the same time, police investigating Moland and French’s lodgings in Kampala found a bunch of weird stuff: ID badges for their security firm, for instance, with pseudonyms beside their photos. And they had some weapons -- a rifle, for instance.
I followed the case only intermittently, and I’ll avoid pronouncing my own judgment. What prompted my post was rather Moland’s father’s biographical reminiscences of his son. He remembers Moland as a young man passionate about hunting and the outdoors who, after serving in a hunting batallion in the Norwegian military, worked at game lodges in South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia, and went on to train game park guards in multiple African countries. It was this last piece of information that piqued my interest. Over the course of my research on violent conservation in the Central African Republic, I have met a number of men with biographies similar to Moland’s. They are complicated individuals (as we all are), many with loving families and gentle ways alongside their more militant practices. But I’ve also frequently noticed a cowboy mentality among these guys, an attitude that the bush of remote African spaces is effective camouflage for all that happens there. Frequently, it is. But not always. And in those cases, the camouflage of the bush itself becomes dangerous, as it actively obscures the omniscient view that court procedures are tasked with putting together -- even if the court officials were running proceedings transparently, which, in this case, they were not.
My sympathy, then, to Tjostolv Moland’s family, and my hope that his example discourages others from taking their rifles to Africa, however idealistic (or not) their reasons for doing so.