Gradi Koko Lobanga and Navy Malela found out about their death sentences on social media.
The two former bank auditors had just waived their anonymity to disclose that they were the sources behind a report that revealed evidence of an alleged sophisticated international money laundering network within the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
But within days it was announced that the whistleblowers, currently living in exile in Europe, had been sentenced to death for “criminal conspiracy” by the High Court in Kinshasa, despite neither they nor their lawyers ever stepping foot in a courtroom before the verdict was delivered.
“The trial violated Malela’s and Koko’s rights to a fair trial under international law,” Thomas Fessy, Senior Democratic Republic of Congo Researcher at Human Rights Watch, tells VICE World News.
Malela and Koko were key sources in a report published by the Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) and Global Witness. The report exposed what appeared to be a network allegedly formed by Israeli billionaire and mining magnate Dan Gertler, used to conceal the movement of millions of dollars and help circumvent US sanctions and acquire new mining assets in DRC. Afriland First Bank DRC – a small bank where Koko and Malela worked as in-house auditors – was allegedly at the heart of the suspected laundering network.
“The midnight conviction of the courageous whistleblowers at Afriland First Bank, Navy Malela and Gradi Koko Lobanga, was a travesty of justice,” said Sasha Lezhnev, deputy director of policy at The Sentry, an organisation that investigates the alleged ill-gotten gains of war criminals. “It and the unjust death sentence against them should be reversed, and authorities should, in contrast, investigate the alleged criminal conduct at the bank that the whistleblowers bravely brought to light.'“
Fessy, of Human Rights Watch, said the two auditors had no prior knowledge the trial was even taking place. “Instead, it was representatives for Afriland and Dan Gertler who informed journalists at a press conference about a sentence handed down 5 months earlier. And the day after the press conference, the copy of the verdict, which neither Malela nor Koko or their lawyer had seen, was posted online by a Congolese outlet and then shared on social media. That’s how both of them discovered the verdict for the first time. They had no knowledge of the court hearing.”
The papers leaked by Malela and Koko also alleged that Gertler’s “close friendship” with ex-President Joseph Kabila ostensibly helped the prominent mining tycoon conceal his interests “behind a new web of Congolese shell companies and proxy bank accounts”.
The documents reveal evidence that Gertler and his “network of proxies” allegedly moved “at least $100 million” (£71,836,500) between bank accounts associated with this network during a period when Gertler was sanctioned in 2017 under the Global Magnitsky Act. “Almost 70 percent” of this sum was deposited in cash to accounts connected to Gertler and his associates. Afriland First Bank DRC was allegedly at the heart of the suspected laundering network. After detecting “internal irregularities” that were “capable of exposing the bank to risks of non-conformity on the national or international level,” Koko and Malela blew the whistle.
“PPLAAF and Global Witness’ analysis, based on documents provided by whistleblowers despite great risks to their personal safety, uncovers a complex web of shell companies, secret bank accounts and proxies apparently put in place to assist Gertler and his accomplices,” says Gabriel Bourdon-Fattal, Project Manager at PPLAAF.
Lawyers representing Gertler strongly denied all allegations of wrongdoing, and say some of the bank documents provided in the report had been “falsified”. They also accused PPLAAF and Global Witness of “corrupt practices” and providing “bribes” to sources. Afriland First Bank DRC and Gertler have filed defamation suits against PPLAAF and Global Witness in a Parisian court.
In 2020, an investigation by The Sentry revealed that Afriland First Bank DRC allegedly acted as a haven for North Korean businessmen seeking to evade UN, US, and EU sanctions. The bank also has alleged links to financiers of Lebanese political party and militant group, Hezbollah.
The verdict is not the first shock that Koko and Malela have had to process this year. On the 15th of January, in the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Trump administration quietly eased Gertler’s sanctions; granting him the license to resume “all transactions and activities” that had previously been prohibited. But in a swift U-turn, the Biden administration reimposed Gertler’s sanctions on the 8th of March: describing the authorisation of Gertler’s licence as “inconsistent with America’s strong foreign policy interests in combating corruption around the world.”
“U.S. sanctions are one of the strongest messages against Gertler,” Anneke Van Woudenberg, Executive Director of Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), tells VICE World News. “They show that the U.S. and others outside of Congo considered him a corrupt actor, recognised the huge damaging effects of that, and were taking action. Now that is important, because no court has yet found Gertler guilty of corruption. Even though there are lots of indications and strong evidence of alleged corruption, no courts have found that.”
“When the Trump administration lifted those sanctions, it had a chilling impact – with groups saying ‘Wow, what do we do now? Is our fight against corruption having to go silent again? Is the US government not with us?’. Of course, that has been, and rightly so, reversed by the Biden administration, which has really energised the anti-corruption movement in Congo. Whereas they had felt for a few weeks and months abandoned, uncertain, and unsure of where to go, now they have really found their voice.”
Van Woudenberg added: “But the death sentence against the two whistleblowers is still there. And it is troubling.”
The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of Africa’s most mineral-rich nations, boasting an abundance of mineral resources – including an estimated excess of $24 trillion worth of untapped natural riches. The DRC’s substantial untapped reserves, however, have been intricately linked to the conflict, violence and instability that has afflicted the Central-African nation since its colonial era. The deadly combination of weakened institutions from long-running instability, and soaring interest from national and foreign entities eyeing the DRC’s high-grade low-cost mines, has also created an optimal environment for corruption to thrive in “endemic” levels.
Acts of corruption and impunity within the DRC’s lucrative mining sector have caused the nation’s economy to suffer losses of hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the Africa Progress Panel, just five clandestine sales of “underpriced assets” from state-owned mining corp Gécamines to Gertler resulted in the DRC losing an ‘estimated $1.4 billion’ in potential revenue. The brunt of this activity is most harshly felt by the people of the DRC, 72 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day despite the riches under their feet.
“The focus may be on Gertler, but we know that Senior Officials in the DRC also benefited. We know from court documents that ex-president Joseph Kabila and Senior Advisers were individuals who received kickbacks and significant payments whenever Gertler made one of these deals. There were very few mining deals in Congo, especially in the last ten years of Kabilas presidency, that did not include Dan Gertler,” says Van Woudenberg.
Without the safety net of rights and protections for whistleblowers, many are often afraid to speak out: fearing for their lives and careers. Prior to leaving the DRC, a member of Afriland’s management threatened one of the whistleblowers with an insinuation that they could get “shot in the street” for the irregularities that he had flagged.
“[Koko and Malela’s] sentencing sends a message of intimation to anyone who would be tempted to denounce crimes and abuses of which they become aware of in the course of their work,” Jean-Morbert Senga, Amnesty International’s Researcher for the DRC, says.“[There is] total lack of legal protection for whistleblowers in the DRC; who are treated like criminals or public enemies ‘manipulated’ by foreign powers”. Transparency International’s 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) , however, indicates that corruption levels in The Democratic Republic of Congo have remained unchanged since President Félix Tshisekedi took office in 2019.
“If this sentiment is not quashed, it will set an extremely bad precedent for whistleblowers”.