LOCAL NEWS

Two Utahns implicated in a coup attempt in Congo go on trial before a military court

Jun 7, 2024, 7:59 PM | Updated: 9:53 pm

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Three Americans accused of being involved in last month’s coup attempt in Congo appeared in a military court in the country’s capital, Kinshasa, on Friday, along with dozens of other defendants who were lined up on plastic chairs before the judge on the first day of the hearing.

The proceedings before the open-air military court were broadcast live on the local television channel.

Six people were killed during the botched coup attempt led by the little-known opposition figure Christian Malanga last month that targeted the presidential palace and a close ally of President Felix Tshisekedi. Malanga was fatally shot for resisting arrest soon after live-streaming the attack on his social media, the Congolese army said.

The defendants face a number of charges, many punishable by death, including terrorism, murder and criminal association. The court said there were 53 names on the list, but the names of Malanga and one other person were removed after death certificates were produced.

Malanga’s 21-year-old son Marcel Malanga, who is a U.S. citizen, and two other Americans are on trial for their alleged role in the attack. All three requested an interpreter to translate the proceedings from French to English.

Malanga’s son was the first to be questioned by the judge, who asked him to confirm his name and other personal details. The military official chosen to translate for him was apparently unable to understand English well. Eventually, a journalist was selected from the media to replace him, but he too had trouble translating numbers and the details of the proceedings.

“He’s not interpreting right. We need a different interpreter who understands English, please,” Marcel Malanga told the judge after the journalist incorrectly translated his zip code.

But no other translator emerged and the defendants had to make do with the journalist, who worked for national radio. Malanga appeared frustrated and defiant as the interview stumbled ahead.

Tyler Thompson Jr., 21, flew to Africa from Utah with the younger Malanga for what his family believed was a vacation, with all expenses paid by the elder Malanga. The young men had played high school football together in the Salt Lake City suburbs. Other teammates accused Marcel of offering up to $100,000 to join him on a “security job” in Congo.

Utah man declined $100K offer to travel to Congo on ‘security job’ that was covert coup attempt

Thompson appeared before the court with a shaved head and sores on his skin, looking nervous and lost as he confirmed his name and other personal details.

His stepmother, Miranda Thompson, told The Associated Press that the family found out about the hearing too late to arrange travel to Congo, but hoped to be present for future court dates. Before this week, the family had no proof he was still alive.

“We’re thrilled with the confirmation,” she said.

Miranda Thompson had worried that her stepson might not even be aware that his family knew he’d been arrested. On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Congo told the AP it had yet to gain access to the American prisoners to provide consular services before the trial.

The embassy didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

From left T,yler Thompson Jr, Marcel Malanga and Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, all American citizens, face the court in Kinshasa with 52 other defendants Friday June 7, 2024, accused of a role in last month’s attempted coup in Congo led by little-known opposition figure Christian Malanga in which six people were killed. (AP Photo/Samy Ntumba Shambuyi)

Thompson’s family maintains he had no knowledge of the elder Malanga’s intentions, no plans for political activism and didn’t even plan to enter Congo. He and the Malangas were meant to travel only to South Africa and Eswatini, Thompson’s stepmother said.

Marcel Malanga’s mother, Brittney Sawyer, has said her son is innocent and simply followed his father, who considered himself president of a shadow government in exile. Sawyer and the Thompsons are independently crowdfunding for legal expenses and travel funds to be present for the rest of the trial.

Both families say they remain worried about their sons’ health — Malanga has a liver disease, and Thompson contracted malaria earlier in the trip.

“As a mother, my heart is crying each day,” Sawyer wrote on her crowdfunding page. “My main goal each day is to bring him home.”

Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, 36, was the third American on trial. He was seen seated in the back row, and was the last to be interviewed. He told the court he wasn’t married and had three children. The AP has been unable to reach his family for comment.

Zalman-Polun, who in 2015 pleaded guilty to trafficking marijuana, is reported to have known Christian Malanga through a gold mining company that was set up in Mozambique in 2022, according to an official journal published by Mozambique’s government, and a report by the Africa Intelligence newsletter.

A prominent Belgian-Congolese researcher on political and security issues, Jean-Jacques Wondo, also appeared in court on Friday. It was unclear what evidence was held against him. Human Rights Watch said it had consulted with Wondo for years on research, and his only link to Malanga appears to be an old photo.

“Wondo and others detained should be credibly charged with a criminal offense or immediately released. An arrest based only on a 2016 photo is just not credible,” Human Rights Watch said in statement on Friday.

The defendants will appear in court again next Friday to continue with the trial.

___

Donati reported from Dakar, Senegal, and Schoenbaum from Salt Lake City.

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Two Utahns implicated in a coup attempt in Congo go on trial before a military court