BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo (AP) — A judge, who recently convicted six soldiers for their role in a 2012 explosion which killed close to 300 people in the Republic of Congo, told a private television station that security forces on Tuesday seized his passport and prevented him from traveling to neighboring Benin.
Judge Mathurin Bayi told DRTV television in Brazzaville on Wednesday that he believed the action against him at the airport is retribution for the jail sentences he delivered to soldiers over the explosions.
Although the punishments handed down to the soldiers were viewed as lenient by the families of the 282 people killed in last year’s blast, the sentences issued by Bayi are believed to have riled the military, which has a history of impunity in this Central African nation.
Bayi said that he was sitting inside the plane on Tuesday, which had just landed in Pointe-Noire, the Republic of Congo’s second-largest city. He was en route to Cotonou, the capital of Benin, for a conference on business law in Africa, when two policemen entered the plane. He says the officers led him away, then took his passport, before boarding him onto a plane headed back to Brazzaville.
“In light of this, I think we should reflect on the state of the rule of law in our country, given how the police behaved in front of a high-ranking magistrate, who has nothing to reproach himself,” said Bayi.
The March 4, 2012 blasts leveled an entire neighborhood of the capital, Brazzaville. Aerial photographs showed that an area one-square-mile wide had been flattened. The explosions began after a fire broke out in a military warehouse in the Mpila neighborhood, where the country’s war-grade weapons were stored. The heat set off rockets, mortars, and airplane bombs, punching holes through cement walls, causing roofs to collapse, and knocking down buildings. A church which normally ministers to several hundred worshippers was completely obliterated, except for a statue of the Virgin Mary.
On Sept. 9, Bayi sentenced six soldiers, including three colonels for their role in the blast. The heaviest sentence was handed to an army corporal, who received 15 years of forced labor. Five of the six were found guilty of complicity in the fire, while another was convicted of having embezzled state funds that should have been used for the construction of containers to properly store the dangerous weapons.
Associated Press writer Rukmini Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.