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Britain Neglecting Citizen in Unfair Congo Murder Trial, Lawyer Says

27/01/2014 14:40 GMT | Updated 29/03/2014 09:59 GMT

The UK government is neglecting a British former soldier who is losing an unfair murder trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo for the suicide of his cellmate and friend, his lawyer said.

Joshua French, 31, faces the death penalty in the trial for the death of Tjostolv Moland in their prison cell in August last year. French is a joint British-Norwegian national and Moland was a Norwegian citizen. Following the death of Moland, Norwegian police were invited to join their Congolese colleagues to investigate. The joint conclusion was that the death was not caused by any criminal act. Norway has sent Kai Eide, a senior diplomat and former NATO ambassador, to Congo to negotiate French's release.

"The Norwegians give this their top priority and sadly the British are not. It's a matter that has to be solved very quickly or we will risk losing the life of a British citizen,'' Norwegian lawyer Hans Marius Graasvold said in a telephone interview from Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, on January 25. "I am very worried about the direction this case is taking. It might well lead to a negative verdict even though all the evidence says that French is not guilty. He is in a condition where he urgently needs medical attention. There is reason to fear for his life."

There is a "constant lack of proper procedure" in court, Graasvold said. During French's trial on January 24, the Norwegian medical expert who participated in the investigation of Moland's death was obstructed from giving evidence, the lawyer said.

Graasvold has sent Diane Corner, the British ambassador to Congo, a list of inconsistencies in the trial.

The murder charge "doesn't make sense" given the joint conclusion of the Congolese and Norwegian authorities, said Svein Michelsen, a spokesman for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The British and Norwegian prime ministers have in a joint letter appealed to DR Congo president Joseph Kabila for the release of the British national Joshua French," Michelsen said.

A spokesman for the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office declined to comment on the letter. "We continue to provide consular assistance to French and are in regular touch with his family," a spokesman for the FCO said. "We have been, and will continue to be, in touch with the Congolese authorities about this case."

French and Moland were imprisoned after they were sentenced to death for the murder of their driver, who was found dead in May 2009. Both men denied murdering Abedi Kasongo.

All through January 24, the Congolese prosecutor rejected the arguments in the Norwegian reports about Moland's death, while the Norwegian expert was not allowed to comment, Graasvold said.

Furthermore, the prison director testified in a way that he had not spoken before, Graasvold said.

"He said there were constant fights between Moland and French. I have been seeing this man since August and he never told me anything about that. On the contrary he said that their relationship was good and that they contributed positively to the prison environment," Graasvold said.

Graasvold is urging the British government to play a much more active role.

"We have not time for formal or legal procedures. we need to do things in a more practical manner now to save him. I have asked them to consider every option," he said. "There are consular ways of dealing with this but there are also diplomatic or political ways."

The hearing is due to finish by January 31, Graasvold said. A judgment will be passed no later than eight days after the final day of the hearing, he said.