A shaky cell phone video shows Zaida Catalán and her American colleague Michael Sharp being led towards a grove of trees by a group of armed men. Shortly thereafter, they were executed.
Catalán and Sharp were on a UN mission. Among other things, they were investigating the Congolese army’s responsibility for mass graves containing thousands of civilian victims.
“She had a sensitive mission: her task was to dig deeper and try to find the guilty parties in serious crimes against human rights and humanitarian law,” says Olof Skoog, Sweden’s UN ambassador.
Militia group suspected
Two weeks later, the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo released the execution video to the public. They call it proof that the local militia group Kamuina Nsapu is responsible for the murders.
“They say it, they say, ‘Long live Kamuina Nsapu, while killing the two UN experts,” says Barneby Kikaya, diplomatic advisor to the president of the DRC, to Mission Investigate.
In August 2017, five months after the murders, UN Secretary-General António Guterres presented the UN’s only report on the murder so far. The investigator was leading diplomat Greg Starr.
The report also points to Kamuina Nsapu, a group that is rebelling against the Congolese government.
The government’s suspected ties
But Swedish television’s Mission Investigate, in collaboration with Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Monde, Foreign Policy magazine and Radio France International, gained access to thousands of leaked documents from within the UN headquarters in New York.
They contain new, crucial information about the murders, and paint a completely different picture than the one presented in the UN report.
The leak reveals that the UN has long been in possession of information showing that figures in the Congolese government can be linked to the killers in the execution video. They are commanders in the military and agents in the security service.
One of the documents describes how the military infiltrated the local militia and reveals suspicions that the government “concealed” its “influence” over the murders, and that the government is trying to “camouflage” who “the actual murderers” are.
The suspected motive for killing Zaida Catalán and Michael Sharp, according to the document, is to keep them from uncovering the Congolese army’s mass graves in the area.
Deceived by undercover agents
The leaked documents also show that Catalán and Sharp were lured to the place where they were later executed.
At a meeting the day before the murder, they met with a representative of the Kamuina Nsapu militia to ensure that it was safe for them to go there. The man repeatedly warned the UN experts to stay away:
“I repeat that you do not know what is happening there. Do not doubt what I am telling you. Don’t give any more guarantees. While leaving they will fall into an ambush.”
But the interpreters at the meeting were in fact, according to the leak, undercover agents working for the Congolese security service. They intentionally altered their translation, giving the UN experts guarantees that their journey would be safe.
Analysis of the execution video
In addition, Radio France International (RFI), conducted a linguistic analysis of the dialogue in the execution video. It confirms the idea that an outside person influenced the militia to kill Catalán and Sharp.
The men are speaking the local language, Tshiluba, which is the language of the Kamuina Nsapu militia. But the order to shoot the UN experts is given in Lingala, the language of the army.
Sonia Rolley, journalist at RFI, was the first person to discover this. She says that Kamuina Nsapu members would never use the Lingala language, which they call “the language of pigs.”
“My question is, who recorded that? Who can plan this kind of murder?
“It looks very suspicious”
Greg Starr’s 47-page UN report casts no suspicion on the Congolese state. Rather, it criticizes Catalán and Sharp’s decision to use motorcycle taxis, which he states allowed the murder to take place.
There’s nothing in the report about the undercover intelligence agents or the military’s infiltration of the militia—information that we know through the leak that the UN had.
DR Congo expert Jason Stearns has worked with the UN’s group of experts in the country for several years. Mission Investigate shows him the leaked documents.
“To me it looks very suspicious. It’s circumstantial evidence showing that the Congolese government may have been setting up Michael and Zaida to go to the very place they were killed. And government agents were involved in that very process. I think, Greg Starr, knew that when he wrote that report.”
“Proof that they were misled”
When he learns that Mission Investigate has access to the documents, UN investigator Starr decides not to allow an filmed interview. But he says that there were not enough evidence to point out the Congolese government.
“The report does not exonerate the DRC government, nor does it say that they were guilty.” he says.
The leak shows that the UN withheld all information about the Congolese state’s connections to the murders —also from the victims’ families.
“We’re helpless as family members because we don’t know anything. You trust the UN. And then we find out this was withheld; it’s scandalous,” says Zaida Catalán’s sister Elizabeth Morseby when she finds out.
For the family, the unsolved murder is still an open wound.
“This is proof that they were misled, and that there was an agenda behind this. A serious agenda,” says Catalán’s mother Maria Morseby.
An email from UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s office says that Greg Starr has been accommodating and given the families all the relevant data.
As of last year, the Secretary-General has appointed a new group on-site in Congo to support the Congolese murder investigation. The group is to assess if anything else must be done to determine who is responsible for the murder of the UN experts.
The report Deceptive diplomacy will be broadcast on SVT1 on Wednesday the 28th of November and is available on SVT Play.