DRC-attempted coup: Two American defendants cite coercion

Two U.S. citizens on trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for their alleged involvement in a failed coup in May told a court on Friday that they were coerced by the coup leader.

On May 19, armed men briefly took over a presidential office in Kinshasa. The leader of the coup, U.S.-based Congolese politician Christian Malanga, was killed by security forces.

Malanga’s son, Marcel Malanga, 22, and Benjamin Zalman-Polun testified that Christian Malanga threatened to kill them if they did not comply. Marcel said he came to Congo at his father’s invitation and had no prior involvement in the plot, adding, “I am American, I do not speak French or Lingala.”

They are among over 50 individuals, including citizens from various countries, on trial for charges like illegal arms possession, criminal conspiracy, and terrorism. Zalman-Polun, a long-time business associate of Malanga, denied involvement in the coup planning.

The trial was adjourned until Monday, July 8.

Tyler Thompson Jr., 21, flew to Africa from Utah with the younger Malanga for what his family believed was a vacation, with all expenses paid by the elder Malanga. The young men had played high school football together in the Salt Lake City suburbs. Other teammates accused Marcel of offering up to $100,000 to join him on a “security job” in Congo.

Thompson appeared before the court with a shaved head and sores on his skin, looking nervous and lost as he confirmed his name and other personal details.

His stepmother, Miranda Thompson, told The Associated Press that the family found out about the hearing too late to arrange travel to Congo, but hoped to be present for future court dates. Before this week, the family had no proof he was still alive.

“We’re thrilled with the confirmation,” she said.

Miranda Thompson had worried that her stepson might not even be aware that his family knew he’d been arrested. On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Congo told the AP it had yet to gain access to the American prisoners to provide consular services before the trial.

The embassy didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Thompson’s family maintains he had no knowledge of the elder Malanga’s intentions, no plans for political activism and didn’t even plan to enter Congo. He and the Malangas were meant to travel only to South Africa and Eswatini, Thompson’s stepmother said.

Marcel Malanga’s mother, Brittney Sawyer, has said her son is innocent and simply followed his father, who considered himself president of a shadow government in exile. Sawyer and the Thompsons are independently crowdfunding for legal expenses and travel funds to be present for the rest of the trial.

Both families say they remain worried about their sons’ health — Malanga has a liver disease, and Thompson contracted malaria earlier in the trip.

“As a mother, my heart is crying each day,” Sawyer wrote on her crowdfunding page. “My main goal each day is to bring him home.”

Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun, 36, was the third American on trial. He was seen seated in the back row, and was the last to be interviewed. He told the court he wasn’t married and had three children. The AP has been unable to reach his family for comment.

Zalman-Polun, who in 2015 pleaded guilty to trafficking marijuana, is reported to have known Christian Malanga through a gold mining company that was set up in Mozambique in 2022, according to an official journal published by Mozambique’s government, and a report by the Africa Intelligence newsletter.

A prominent Belgian-Congolese researcher on political and security issues, Jean-Jacques Wondo, also appeared in court on Friday. It was unclear what evidence was held against him. Human Rights Watch said it had consulted with Wondo for years on research, and his only link to Malanga appears to be an old photo.

“Wondo and others detained should be credibly charged with a criminal offense or immediately released. An arrest based only on a 2016 photo is just not credible,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Additional sources • AP