Twenty-two men convicted over the 2001 assassination of Democratic Republic of Congo president Laurent-Desire Kabila were released from prison Friday after being pardoned by current leader Felix Tshisekedi.
The men were met outside Makala prison in the capital Kinshasa by family and friends, some in tears.
Among those released was the slain president’s former aide de camp Colonel Eddy Kapend, who has always denied any part in the plot to murder Kabila, father of Tshisekedi’s predecessor and political rival Joseph Kabila.
After leaving prison by a jeep under military escort, 61-year-old Kapend later emerged from his home in the western town of Macampagne, looking relaxed and wearing a military kepi.
To shouts of “There he is!” and “Papa is here!” from supporters, he waved from a balcony, and smiled slightly before disappearing back into the house.
A 23rd man, former intelligence chief Georges Leta, was also freed, but did not appear at a release ceremony with the others due to ill health.
The 23 were initially handed death sentences, which were then commuted to jail terms by Tshisekedi last June.
He issued the pardon on December 31, several weeks after a coalition he formed with Kabila supporters ended.
The pardons are “for purely humanitarian reasons,” deputy justice minister Bernard Takaishe told the 22 men at the ceremony, stressing that this did not amount to a “blank cheque”.
“You can’t just go out tomorrow and get yourself into the kind of situation which deprived you of your freedom,” he warned them.
Takaishe also said that pardon would not erase their criminal record.
The measure was taken “quite simply because we want to put the country back on track, to bring some peace to the Congolese people,” he told them.
Some of those released on Friday called for their cases to be retried.
“I was innocent, but condemned,” said Cesaire Muzima following his release. “I was sentenced to death for treason, but whom did I betray?”
No one in the entourage of former president Joseph Kabila wished to comment on the releases from prison.