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DR Congo overturns death sentences for Norwegians

22 April 10 14:23 GMT

A court in Democratic Republic of Congo has overturned the death sentences passed on two Norwegians convicted of murdering their driver.

Former soldiers Joshua French, who holds joint British-Norwegian nationality, and Tjostolv Moland were also found guilty of spying for Norway.

A Congolese judge accepted defence arguments that procedures at their military tribunal hearing were flawed.

A re-trial with different judges has now been ordered.

The two men were convicted of the spying and murder charges in September 2009 and lost an appeal on 3 December.

They and the Norwegian state had also been ordered to pay $500m (£300m) in damages.

The rulings drew immediate international protests amid claims of miscarriages of justice.

New witnesses

"The higher military court accepts the request of the defendants, annuls the decision in all its aspects and sends the case back to the military court of Province Orientale," Col Bassolo Yeliambela, the lead judge in the case, was quoted by Reuters news agency as saying.

The top military court in the capital Kinshasa has asked the court in Kisangani, where the original trial took place, to hold a re-trial with new judges.

Lawyers for the two men welcomed the ruling.

"We're happy that the judges considered the arguments we developed before them and annulled the decision by the Kisangani military court, which was riddled with errors," said Andre Kibambe, Mr Moland's lawyer.

A new trial means the two men, who are still being detained in Kisangani, will be able to put forward new evidence and witnesses, the BBC's Thomas Fessy in DR Congo reports.

Mr Moland and Mr French have been held since May 2009 when their Congolese driver, Abedi Kasongo, 47, was found shot dead.

The men say they were travelling to DR Congo from Uganda on a motorbike trip. When the motorbike broke down, they hired Mr Kasongo to take them back to Uganda.

They deny the killing, saying an unknown gunman ambushed them.

Both defendants were carrying Norwegian military identity cards when they were arrested. This led to claims that they were spies, which have been denied by the Norwegian government.

The pair met while serving in Norway's elite Telemark Battalion. Both left the Norwegian military in 2007 to work as security guards in Africa and the Middle East.

Mr French was born in Norway to a British father and Norwegian mother, and lived in Margate, Kent, as a child.

He moved back to Norway when his parents divorced, but returned to the UK aged 20 and served in the British Army.

British diplomats are following the case because of Mr French's British nationality.

Last year, Norway's foreign minister said he had been assured that the death sentences would not be carried out.

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