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 Pretoria - While preparations are under way for a massive civil suit against government for the wrongful arrest and detention of 20 Congolese nationals, five of those families are picking up the pieces and mending broken relationships after the fathers were released from custody on Friday.

Pretoria High Court judge Billy Mothle on Friday acquitted the last five of the 20 men arrested on charges of plotting to overthrow the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), saying the State had failed to prove the men’s intention to carry out the crime.

They were arrested on a farm in Limpopo on February 5, 2013, after a clandestine operation which included infiltrating meetings and communication between the men and undercover police officers.

The State had presented evidence and witnesses to support claims of a plot to kill President Joseph Kabila, senior officials and other prominent members of DRC society.

Judge Mothle released 15 of the men last November, after the State’s case against them crumbled, and on Friday the wives of some of the remaining five spoke about the hardships of the past two years (and 13 days) and the rift created within their families.

Annette Kilele, whose husband Jeff walked away a free man on Friday, said she had struggled to keep her five children’s faith in their father intact. “The worst of it was when he was not part of the 15 released last year, this cast obvious doubt on his innocence,” she said.

That difficulty was compounded by the intense security scrutiny during visiting times at the jail: “They were called high-risk prisoners and we the wives of criminals.”

 

Adelina Masikeni’s main task was to introduce her 2-year-old to her father: “She was two months when he was arrested and doesn’t know him.” She said the expectations of their other children, aged 19, 15, 12 and 11 were high.

 

When he declared the men not guilty on all charges, Judge Mothle said: “There is no clear evidence of their intention to commit the alleged crimes, the prosecution failed to provide a reasonable version to dispute the evidence of accused number 4.”

The judge said the accuser’s testimony that the whole operation had been a ruse and he was in it for the money was firmer than the State’s evidence.

He had claimed to be leading fund-raising and training operations for an organisation planning a coup against Kabila’s administration, requesting arms, training and $125 000 (R1.4 million).

Judge Mothle questioned the undercover cops’ role in luring the men into a trap, saying they had created an opportunity for crime: “They used deceit and trickery to entice them to develop a plan that clearly didn’t exist.”

That the undercover agents had increased the money on offer – from $125 000 to $400 000 went beyond merely creating an opportunity for the accused to create crime.

Lawyer Thesigan Pillay said the release of the men was a significant victory. “It is a crying shame and an indictment for our Constitution…,” he said.

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