The human rights community in the Democratic Republic of Congo mourns the passing of one of its most respected figures. Lawyer Jean-Joseph Mukendi wa Mulumba succumbed to COVID-19 on March 24 in the capital, Kinshasa – becoming the third person known to have died from the virus in the country. Mukendi’s family, colleagues, and those he defended will sorely miss him.
Throughout his career, Mukendi tirelessly advocated for the rights of the voiceless and the oppressed. He played a prominent role in the trial following the double murder of human rights defender Floribert Chebeya and his driver Fidèle Bazana in 2010. “He fought passionately to defend their cause,” Chebeya’s widow, Annie, told me over the phone today. “He supported us immensely, with his whole team of lawyers fighting for us during the trial. I have no words; it’s really a shock.”
Many of the country’s human rights and pro-democracy activists, as well as former members of the political opposition, remember how Mukendi fearlessly defended them when they were thrown behind bars during then-President Joseph Kabila’s final years in office. At the height of the political repression, Mukendi successfully represented Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala of the youth movement Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le Changement, LUCHA) at the Supreme Court of Justice, securing their release after 18 months in prison. “He was there when we were going through this, when we really had no hope,” Makwambala told Human Rights Watch today.
Human Rights Watch could count on Mukendi’s sound advice whenever we needed him. He would always make time for us, answering our questions, informing us about ongoing cases, or simply sharing his thoughts and reflections on the human rights and political situation in Congo.
Born in Bunkonde, in the Kasai-Central province, Mukendi also served as president of the bar at the Court of Cassation. In 2018, Mukendi was elected as member of the national parliament for the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) party.
Mukendi’s legacy will continue to inspire lawyers and human rights activists in Congo to defend those targeted for their activism or political beliefs, no matter how challenging the circumstances.