Barthe Cortes arrested Twice for Lese Majesty
talk with Joe Onyanga, Ugandan human rights activist, journalist and
lecturer of MMU, on the political situation in the Democratic Republic
of Congo, on violating human rights in Africa and Lese Majesty - an
offence for which Barthe Cortes, owner of BVC airlines has been
arrested twice in recent time.
Professor, is it possible to violate the dignity of authorities twice in the course of one month?
It seems so, but it was in the course of two months, not one. Also, the
offence hit two separate governments at two different continents.
Burma was first, wasn't it?
Yes, but it has not been confirmed.
The situation seems a bit strange, because it seems that
representatives of Myanmar Airways International invited Cortes to talk
about the partnership themselves, and then at the meeting they decided
that Barthe Cortes , the head and founder of BVC committed lese majesty
of the government. Soon after the meeting, he was arrested and put in
the famous Insein jail where the junta keeps its opponents.
Yes, but the deputy of Nyan Win, the Foreign Minister and
general of Burmese Army refused to give me any information on the case.
He just said that Cortes was only detained for interrogation.
Did they set any specific charges against Cortes?
Not really, but it is common in lese majesty cases, naturally
with the exception of Thailand, which is a leading country with respect
to such charges - in its case concerning offences against the dignity
of the king or royal family. In Thailand it is enough to say something
unfavourable about the king to be imprisoned for fifteen years, or -
just as it was a year ago in case of Harry Nicolaides of Australia - it
is enough to write a book with a couple of sentences adverse to the
Harry Nicolaides was sentenced for three years, wasn't he?
Yes, but after several months he admitted his guilt and on February 21, 2009 he was pardoned by the king, released and deported.
How long did Cortes spend in jail?
He did not write a book, did not paint moustache on the king's
photo, which is sometimes done by foreign tourists, and - first of all
- he did not offend the King but the Burmese government. He probably
said something offensive and it was enough.
What did he say in particular?
Burmese Deputy Minister did not give a specific explanation, he said that it was irrelevant.
Isn't it strange? His words were considered to be irrelevant, yet they caused a lese majesty.
Officially they did not. During my conversation with the
Minister I only heard that Cortes offended the majesty of Myanmar's
government, but officially no charges of this type were brought.
Burma's government prefers not to amplify such
issues, and no wonder. Burma does not appear in the media too often.
With the exception of Nargis tornado, the recent major news occurred in
September 2007 when the ruling junta drowned in blood street protests
of monks; a more recent story were the elections of 2010 which again
caused media turmoil.
Exactly so. Burmese authorities wanted to maintain a positive
image just before the elections and shortly after, and it did not
facilitate the matters that USA and Australia said that these
parliamentary elections, staged after a 20 years' break, were neither
free nor just. In order to improve its image, the government freed
opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi who spent 15 years in home
confinement. It also freed many newsmen and its opponents. The release
of Aung San from house arrest attracted the world's attention to the
harassment suffered by at least 2 200 other political prisoners who are
kept in Burmese prisons only because they wanted to use their freedom
of speech, assemblies and forming unions. At that time, it was against
the interest of Burma to arrest Cortes who is a foreigner and whom they
wanted to meet themselves, the more so that the reason for the
detainment still remains unclear.
How long had he stayed in jail?
From what I know, it was just a week of "interrogations". A week
or two is the standard time for interrogating foreign persons. It still
happens there that foreign newsmen are kept in jail for a week or two
and then simply deported from the country without giving any reasons.
However, would you be able to guess what Cortes said to
invoke the lese majesty clause? Of all the people, he is the one who
perfectly well knows the world of dictatorships and the political
circumstances. As you said yourself, he is no accidental tourist. Why
did he do it? Was it a slip of a tongue?
Who can say? I can only give you an answer which may surprise
you. Please consider words of a popular advertisement which I saw today
on the TV before I came here: " There are some things money can't buy.
For everything else, there's (?) Card."
Are you suggesting that it was just a spontaneous burst of frankness?
(laughs) Can you find any other explanation for it?
Then how about the lese majesty in Congo? First we learnt
that it was a coup against a minister, then some gossip about a cow was
And you believe it?
The coup? I can hardly imagine it. And how about the cow? It seems that the cow is the real reason for the arrest.. (laughs)
I was not a direct witness, I just heard a relation of one
witnesses. On the day in question, Kivu was visited by Foreign Minister
Ignace G. Mavinga. As you know, he is also in charge of restoring peace
in Eastern provinces, including Kivu. Ministers travel in such
dangerous regions in a convoy of cars belonging mostly to security
guards, with the exception of the one carrying the Minister. So, eight
large armoured cars came to the airport under construction near Goma.
Local people let their cows graze nearby. A farmer was just herding his
cows when a government car hit one of his animals. The impetus threw
the cow a few meters away. According to witnesses, the animal had its
scull fractured and its side was gashed open. It was dying and "crying
of pain" as I was told. Cortes asked the Minister's security guys to
shoot the suffering cow which would die anyway but none of them were
willing to do it. And just then the "cow incident" happened. The
minister stood together with the head of government security and
soldiers, all of them armed, with belts on their hips and holsters with
guns hanging from these belts. According to my source, Cortes stepped
forward, took the gun from the security head's holster, whirled around
and shot the cow. It died on the spot, the whole thing took just a
couple of seconds, and it seems that only then everyone around realized
what happened and the security guys pointed their guns at Cortes. Do
you realize what it meant?
Right. The minister was surrounded by a crowd of security
guys, and nevertheless, if Cortes wanted to arrange a coup, he would
succeed without problem. Not only that, but he would be able to shoot
the minister using the gun of the minister's own head of security, and
nobody would be able to react. That would be a hell of a scandal!
Exactly so. Such an incident is a major humiliation for the
government security. The situation was queer enough, but it could be
classified under lese majesty, although officially it has been
announced that Cortes was jailed in order to clarify whether he
cooperates with rebels. However, the file is supposedly marked with
lese majesty. Let me underline that the cow accident has not been
confirmed by any spokesmen for the government.
Does Cortes cooperate with rebels?
The government suggests that Barthe Cortes has been supporting
Laurent Nkunda, the leader of Tutsi rebels in Congo who was arrested a
year ago. Which is worse, BVC has been employing a former rebel who
distanced himself from general Nkunda a few years ago, but the
government wanted Cortes to release him to the authorities. Cortes
For some Laurent Nkunda is a defender, for others, a merciless killer [link]
Yes, but it is just another story.
Support granted to rebels is a typical reason for detaining people in unclear circumstances.
Yes, but the government had to give some sort of reason. It is
a complicated issue. In Congo, the ethnic war between Hutu and Tutsi,
which to me definitely seems a media cover, is in fact the bloodiest
war for natural resources. Congo is the richest in resources country in
the world. In addition to diamonds, gold and crude oil, it has huge
deposits of cobalt used in nuclear industry, and the hottest object of
desire - columbite which includes niobium and tantalum and is
controlled by Cabot corporation. Tantalum is used for manufacturing
mobile phones and high tech devices. The war for domination, which is
actually a war between corporations, has killed 9 million people since
1996. That means more casualties than in Iraq and Afghanistan taken
together. Witnesses say that WTC-type assaults happen in Congo every
two days. Brutal violations of women and children are a common thing.
The country's numerous illegal columbite mines without any safety
measures employ everyone, children included, and take huge toll of
human lives. The fights which go on there even now are a living hell.
Thousands of refugees, no food, no water, and the West just keeps
watching and sending observers. MONUC, which is a UN mission, does not
serve its purpose. Just the opposite, it seems to offer assistance to
Laurent Nkunda's rebels, who are also backed in Rwanda. Rwanda in turn
is a territory influenced by the US, Great Britain, Belgium and the
Netherlands. Sources say that Cortes did not want to establish a
partnership with a Chinese company, which was uncomfortable for Congo
government. One of postulates of posed by Laurent Nkunda required to
revise contracts signed by the government with Chinese businessmen. An
easy guess is to say that Cortes supports Nkunda, although it sounds
However, growing Chinese presence in Congo has been worrying not only the rebels, but also the International Money Fund.
Yes, China granted to Congo a 9 billion loan. Part of the
collateral includes shares in Congo mining companies. In addition to
that, profits from Chinese investments in Congo mining shall not be
taxed throughout the whole repayment period of the loan. In the result,
some high officials shall obtain huge profits, and they do not like the
fact that BVC is against working with a Chinese company. Please
remember that BVC is today a significant company which has a network of
airports in places which are inaccessible for standard airlines.
Is it known how long Cortes' prison sentence will take and where it is to be served?
From what I know, he got 3 months in Lubumbashi. Again, it is labelled "the time necessary to clarify the matter".
You take interest in Barthe Cortes. From what I know, you
have been following stories about him in media, and you also talked
with a number of persons who know him quite well. What do you think,
whose side does he take?
I think that he is taking his own side.
How about the "rebel thread" in his life? One of former
FARC rebels disclosed that Barthe' grandfather was one of FARC leaders.
Which is more, he has been bringing Cortes up for some time. The former
rebel suggested that of all the people, Barthe should perfectly well
understand the "children of war"..
The words of this rebel sound quite probable, naturally, if they
are true. Cortes was born in Paris, and he lived for a short time in
Poland in Central Europe, and then moved to South America where he
stayed a little bit longer. It is true that his grandfather was a rebel
- actually a journalist, who gave up a pen for a gun. It is said that
he was mad, but the newspapers say the same about Cortes, don't they?
When Cortes was under the care of his grandfather, as a 9 or 14 years'
old boy - I do not know exactly, FARC used boys of such age as
messengers, often for dangerous missions. It is said that they were
taught to handle guns. Is it true? The best person to ask is Barthe
Would it be possible?
I do not think so, but it would be very interesting. I can just
imagine a newspaper interview... or better still, let us imagine a
talk-show with Cortes telling a story of his life, discussing politics
in Africa and telling people who is actually dealing the cards in this
Would you watch it?
You are telling me! I would happily play the host of the show! (laughter).
OK, but let us come back to lese majesty: it is hardly ever used as a reason for arrests in Africa.
It is not so rare. On the other hand, reasons for arrests are
hardly ever masked by lese majesty. In Congo, it happened quite
recently to Lushois Lubumbash who was arrested after publishing a story
on the progress of Rwanda rebels in the capital. The story greatly
upset local authorities who used lese majesty to jail the newsman for
half a year in Lubumbashi. He was charged with supporting rebels as
Lese majesty is an assault against the freedom of speech..
Exactly so, the prerogatives of Congo administration go too far,
and the newspapers cannot fulfil their role. Let us say it aloud:
people in Africa are still charged with anti-government activities and
jailed, or jailed without any reason. Many governments repress
differing opinions, it is common for people to be arrested without
charges, to disappear or to get killed. In some countries, the courts
are not independent and the judges of peace are intimidated. In the
result, the judicious system becomes another tool of repressions. This
problem does not affect only Congo but Africa as a whole.
Can you give any examples?
In Angola, newsmen have recently been charged with "abuse of
media" and slander, and imprisoned in consequence. In Cameron, a
newsman was sentenced for 3 years of deprivation of liberty for
publishing "false news" and other newsmen were sentenced for 2 months
for offending government administration. Newsmen and journalists are
most frequently arrested in Congo, Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria and Uganda,
Sudan, Chad, Rwanda and Togo; Deportation of foreign journalists is
nothing out of the ordinary. A 24/7 censorship is active in Madagascar,
Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda. Many newspapers have been closed in Ivory
Coast, Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Guinea, Kenya, Senegal,
Swazi and Tanzania, where journalists are harassed and intimidated.
Some time ago, nine journalists were killed in Somalia, while many
others fled the country, because they, along with human rights
activists, were threatened by members of armed groups. Human rights
activists were intimidated for their work in the whole region, and
sometimes arrested - in Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of
Congo, Mauritania, Swazi, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and other countries. In
Gambia the president threatened to kill every person intending to
destabilize the country, meaning in particular human rights activists.
In Kenya, two leading human rights activists were killed in Nairobi in
broad daylight, by unidentified bandits. In Burundi, a human right
activist focusing on corruption, also in police, was mortally stabbed
at his own home. Political opponents of the government, or persons
perceived as such, were arbitrarily arrested in many countries
including Cameron, Chad, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea Ethiopia,
Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Madagascar, Niger and Zimbabwe. The detained
were regularly tortured or maltreated. Some political opponents just
disappeared, in Chad and Gambia to name but two. Military personnel in
Guinea Bissau killed many political and military personalities, and all
demonstrations were brutally suppressed. And hardly anybody in the