STOCKHOLM (AP) — Tjostolv Moland, one of two Norwegian citizens imprisoned in Congo since 2009 on murder charges, has died in prison, his lawyer and government officials said Sunday. He was 32.
The cause of death wasn’t immediately clear, attorney Hans Marius Graasvold said.
British-Norwegian citizen Joshua French, who was imprisoned alongside Moland, is upset but in good health, Graasvold said.
The two former Norwegian soldiers were sentenced to death in Congo in the murder of their driver, Abedi Kasongo, and attempted murder of a witness. The court in the northeastern city of Kinsangani also convicted them of spying for Norway because they were carrying military ID cards at the time. They have denied the charges and the Norwegian government has denied that the men were spies.
Moland, who grew up in Vegardshei in southern Norway, worked for the Norwegian military until 2007. After that, he and French went on to work for private security companies in Africa, according to Norwegian daily Aftenposten. Among other things, they helped companies keep their ships secure off Somalia’s coast.
Graasvold said the two were in Congo in 2009 to do research for a potential start-up of an event company that would arrange extreme tourism holidays.
They had hired Kasongo as their driver after their motorbike broke down while traveling through the rainforest in eastern Congo. They have consistently denied the charges against them, saying they are innocent and were ambushed by gunmen.
The British charity organization Reprieve, which has assisted French’s legal team, has sharply criticized the conviction of the two, pointing out there was no physical evidence against the men and that two people were paid to testify against them.
Graasvold said he was last in contact with Moland about a week ago and wasn’t notified he had any health problems then. Previously, during his time in prison Moland has been ill with malaria and other diseases.
Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide said Moland was found dead in his cell Sunday morning and that members of his family in Norway have been informed.
“More than anything, our thoughts now are with them in this very difficult situation,” Eide said, adding the government has been concerned about French and Moland’s situation for a long time.
Norwegian authorities have tried to have the two transferred to serve their sentences in Norway and have also worked closely with Britain to put pressure on the Congolese officials to pardon the two. Eide on Sunday said Congolese representatives haven’t responded to formal communications from him, British Foreign Secretary William Hague or Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
Graasvold said the two men’s families have earlier criticized Norwegian authorities for being passive in the case.
He said it was now even more important to make sure French is released.
“The tragedy that has now occurred shows us it is extremely important that Joshua French returns home soon,” he said.