Applause as DRC 'mercenaries' appear

Pretoria - Applause and chanting echoed in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria on Monday ahead of the appearance of members of a Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rebel group accused of plotting to overthrow president Joseph Kabila's government while in South Africa.

Supporters packed the court's public gallery and chanted slogans, raising two fingers, as 19 members of the group appeared in court before 11:00.

One member did not appear in court and was said to be in Kalafong Hospital, west of Pretoria, with an undisclosed ailment.

Jonas Mosopa, for two of the 20 men, told the court the charges should be dropped as South Africa did not have jurisdiction in the matter.

He said the alleged crime of plotting to depose the DRC government was set to be executed outside South Africa's borders.

Prosecutor Tory Pretorius said South Africa had an international obligation to act against mercenaries and "cannot be seen to be doing nothing".

He said the recruitment, training, and funding of the group was done in South Africa.

Judge Billy Mothle adjourned the proceedings, saying he would rule on Mosopa's submission after a short break.

Security was heightened at the court, with every person entering being screened. Numerous police officers were in court.

Nineteen of the men, including US-Congolese citizen James Kazongo, were arrested on 5 February last year in a police raid in Limpopo.

The group's alleged leader Etienne Kabila, who claims to be the DRC president's half-brother, was arrested in Cape Town three days later after handing himself over to police.

Mercenary activities

The State alleges the group were members of a dissident organisation in the DRC known as the Union of Nationalists for Renewal and were dissatisfied with the current leadership of the DRC government under President Kabila's leadership.

They face charges of contravening the SA Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act by engaging in mercenary activity and contravening the local Riotous Assemblies Act by conspiring to murder president Kabila and 15 top members of his government.

The State alleges the group last year met undercover members of the Hawks on several occasions.

They allegedly recruited two of the officers and others to provide specialised military training to the group and to procure large numbers of assault rifles, grenades, machine guns, air-to-air missiles, satellite phones, and two-way radios for them.

The State alleges the group's mercenary activities in South Africa had been aimed at a coup d'etat in the DRC to unseat the country's government.

It is further alleged that the group had conspired to murder Kabila and several DRC government officials, including the chiefs of the DRC air force and navy, the national intelligence director, the governor of the central bank, and the minister of interior.