Belgium to return slain Congo leader's tooth to family


Brussels (AFP)

A Belgian judge has agreed that a tooth taken from the remains of assassinated Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba be returned to his family, prosecutors said Thursday.

The tooth had been seized from a Belgian policeman who by his own account took it while helping to dispose of Lumumba's body after the charismatic leader was murdered in 1961.

Eric Van Duyse, spokesman for the federal prosecutor's office, told AFP the tooth would be returned to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony that gained independence 60 years ago.

He described the return as a symbolic gesture, since there was no "absolute certainty" that the tooth was Lumumba's.

"No DNA test has been carried out, it would have destroyed it," he said.

The tooth had been held as evidence in a separate case.

"The prosecutor was in favour of sending it back, but we needed the go-ahead from the investigating magistrate, and that came this week," Van Duyse said.

A pan-Africanist who played a key part in steering Belgian Congo towards independence, Lumumba was appointed the newly decolonised country's first premier at the age of just 34.

In the presence of the then-king Baudouin, he used the moment of independence to lash Belgium for racist persecution and forcing "humiliating slavery" on the Congolese people.

On June 30 this year -- the 60th anniversary of independence -- his daughter Juliana Amato Lumumba called on Belgium to return her father's "relics".

Belgium's current monarch, Philippe, also chose the anniversary to make a landmark gesture, expressing his "deepest regrets" for the "suffering and humiliation" of his country's reign.

Historians say millions were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they worked on rubber plantations belonging to the rapacious 19th-century king Leopold II.

- Drunken dismemberment -

Lumumba's stay in power was short.

Within months, the fledgling state was plunged into crisis by an army mutiny and the secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga, a crisis stoked by Belgian involvement.

Lumumba was overthrown, then jailed, tortured and finally killed by firing squad in January 1961. Forty years later, Belgium acknowledged it bore "moral responsibility" for his death.

In 2000, Belgian Police Commissioner Gerard Soete told AFP that he had chopped up Lumumba's body and those of his companions, Joseph Okito and Maurice Mpolo, and then dissolved the remains in acid.

"We started by getting drunk, to have the courage. We dismembered the corpse, the hardest bit was cutting it up," the now dead Soete said. The corpse was doused in acid and only some teeth remained.

In a documentary screened the same year on the German TV channel ARD, Soete showed two teeth that he said had belonged to Lumumba.

In 2016, a Belgian academic, Ludo De Witte, filed a legal complaint against Soete's daughter after she showed a gold tooth, which she said had belonged to Lumumba, during a newspaper interview.

In Juliana Lumumba's letter this year, which she said was written on behalf of her "wider family", she said that her father was a "hero without a grave".

She condemned "vile statements made in Belgium about holding some of his remains" and blasted the authorities' ambiguous response.

"The remains of Patrice Emery Lumumba are being used on the one hand as trophies by some of your fellow citizens, and on the other as funereal possessions sequestered by your kingdom's judiciary," she said.