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France Court Decision Re-Opens Congo War Crimes Investigation

France's highest court ruled Wednesday that a war crimes investigation against top officials of the Republic of Congo can continue. The officials are blamed for the 1999 disappearance of hundreds of Congolese refugees. Phuong Tran reports from VOA's West African Bureau in Dakar.

The French court decision means that an investigation can continue into accusations of war crimes against the president of the Republic of Congo, Mr. Denis Sassou Nguesso, and other Congolese officials.

The ruling overturned a 2004 decision by a lower French court to stop an investigation in which Jean-Francois Ndengue, who was Congo's police chief in 1999, and another official, General Norbert Dabira, faced charges of crimes against humanity. The two have homes in France, which allowed French authorities to launch the case in response to appeals by relatives of the refugees who disappeared.

Jeanne Selzer, who is with the French League of Human Rights, is a member of the legal team that is pursuing the war crimes case against Congo's officials. She says the high court's decision corrects a mistake made by the lower court in 2004 when it halted the investigation.

"What happened in 2004 was very intense political interference into the investigation and the justice system in France because of some diplomatic relationship between France and Congo, even though there were very important pieces of evidence, which established the responsibility of high Congolese officials," she said.

Congo's president, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who was president in 1999, called Wednesay's high court ruling a "provocation." Appearing on state television, he said his government cannot allow another country to interfere "in the affairs of our country."

At issue is what happened to hundreds of Congolese who were returning, in 1999, from neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, where they had fled to escape civil war. They were arrested at the Congo river port of Brazzaville Beach on suspicion of backing an anti-government militia.

More than 350 refugees disappeared, according to rights groups and relatives of the missing who believe that President Nguesso's authorities killed and tortured them.

Selzer, the French League of Human Rights official, hopes Wednesday's court decision moves the case closer to trial.

"If there are no political interferences, the case will go up to trial. The next step is that the Versailles Court is going to have a hearing. There will be a new investigative judge and he will continue his investigation on the basis of what will be transmitted to him out of the two and a half years of investigation."

Congo filed a case against France in the International Court of Justice in 2002, saying that France did not have a right to pursue a case when the alleged crimes took place elsewhere. The international court has delayed ruling on the case until France's highest court reviewed the case.

Two years ago, Congo tried and acquitted 15 high-ranking military and government officials on the same charges that are now being pursued in France.