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Brazzaville Protests French Decision to Reopen War Crimes Probe

Protests are mounting in the Republic of Congo following a ruling last week by France's high court to re-launch a war-crimes investigation in the African country. Phuong Tran reports from VOA's Central and West Africa bureau.

The French investigation is focused on whether Congolese officials were involved in torturing and killing hundreds of civil war refugees who vanished in 1999 after returning to Brazzaville.

Because one of the Congolese officials accused of war crimes was living in France in 2001, human rights organizations and families pressed to launch the investigation there. The French high court decision last week overturned a 2004 appeals-court ruling that had halted the investigation.

The Congo Republic issued a statement last week calling the high court's decision to allow the probe to continue a "grave affront to its sovereignty, one that could seriously harm cooperation ties with France."

Tuesday, about 100 people protested the ruling outside the French Embassy in Brazzaville by shouting "Down with France, what does France want from us?" They burned a French flag before riot police arrived to disperse them.

Congolese journalist Belinda Ayessa, of the privately-owned newspaper, The Brazzaville Dispatch, says opinion in the Congo is that the French ruling is a sinister joke. She says justice has already been served.

"Has Paris forgotten that this case was carried out in front of court observers who came to Brazzaville with the purpose of making sure justice was served? We have already accomplished in Congo what France is attempting to in their country," said Ayessa.

In 2005, a court in Brazzaville acquitted 15 high-ranking officials of charges of genocide in the 1999 incident.

But Jeanne Sulzer of the International Federation of Human Rights, and a lawyer on the case against the Brazzaville officials, disagrees that the 2005 Congolese court decision, which awarded the victims' families money, was enough to close the case.

"There is absolutely no element showing that there is an independent justice in Congo, so France is still the best forum to bring justice to victims," she said.

Sulzer says threats from the government in Brazzaville and French political pressure derailed the case two years ago, but should not this time.

"There might be some pressure even from the French executives for the French justice to not continue. We are confident now that there is a strong principle of separation of power in France and that justice should remain independent from political pressure," she added.

Journalist Ayessa says that her opposition to the French court decision comes from what she says is her country's need to move forward.

"We are in the process of rebuilding from one of the darkest periods of our history. And here France comes to reawaken demons from the past in a country where the wounds of the civil war are still fresh. We do not need this," she said. "And just because we are a country recovering from war does not mean that our institutions do not work."

The Republic of Congo has a case pending in the International Court of Justice from 2002 based on the argument that France does not have the right to pursue a case when the alleged crimes took place elsewhere.