We are utterly appalled by the sentence of death handed down to whistleblowers, Gradi Koko Lobanga and Navy Malela Mawani, former employees of Afriland Bank who exposed the institution’s potential involvement in a suspected global money laundering network.

The judgement took place without their knowledge or representation, and seems to have been based on misleading or false information. Global Witness condemns entirely the attempt to criminalise these courageous individuals, who initially raised internal concerns about the activity at Afriland Bank, before leaving Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and eventually going public.

We stand with our partners, the Platform for the Protection of Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF), and Congolese civil society in calling on the DRC government to intervene to overturn this flawed and partial judicial process.

The protection of sources and partners will always be of paramount concern to Global Witness. Mr Koko and Mr Malela have bravely waived their anonymity, to speak up against powerful interests and make their voices heard.  We stand in solidarity with them as they continue to face spurious and misleading allegations, which put themselves and their families at risk.

This is not the first time misinformation and lies have been used to smear those speaking out against the powerful organisations and networks linked to our July 2020 report, Undermining Sanctions, written in partnership with PPLAAF. The report was met with a tidal wave of misleading information. The evidence we were presenting showed that Dan Gertler appeared to be using a suspected international money laundering network in a bid to evade the consequences of the US sanctions.

Today, Gertler remains on the US sanctions list despite a license granted to him in the waning days of the Trump Administration. This highly unusual license allowing him to continue his businesses and unfreeze his property for one year is subject to rescission at any time. As a recent New York Times investigation  revealed, the granting of this license was irregular and the Biden administration is considering whether the decision should be reversed.

Even ahead of the report’s publication, a vexatious criminal complaint was filed against both Global Witness and PPLAAF by Afriland First Bank, who were named in the report, which appeared to be aimed at diverting attention away from or discrediting our findings. In the days after we went public with our evidence, we started to notice a stream of social media posts making spurious allegations against us and our staff.

Well-crafted videos were shared, some claiming we had got our information through underhand methods, others connecting us to well-known and deeply unpleasant global conspiracy theories. Some of the profiles sharing this content appeared to have been set up very recently, raising questions about how coordinated and well-funded this smear campaign was.

It was perhaps unsurprising when, days ahead of the launch of PPLAAF’s most recent revelations (on Friday 26th February), two anonymised and promoted articles appeared on the Israeli news site, YNet News, using publicly available information to try to depict Global Witness as having irregular financial or governance arrangements. The same has been attempted through a video, which has been promoted in paid advertisement on YouTube. PPLAAF have been subject to their own serious allegations, which they rightly refute in an extensive statement.

This misinformation is, of course, intended to silence, intimidate and suppress the voices of those who speak out against corruption, criminality and exploitation. But it also aims to prevent the Congolese people hearing the facts, and pursuing justice and real change in their country.

It is difficult to know whether media coverage unquestioningly sharing allegations against the whistleblowers, PPLAAF and Global Witness is tantamount to complicity in deliberately redirecting public attention away from evidence of wrongdoing by Gertler and Afriland Bank, or whether it is simply irresponsible journalism. It certainly makes no effort to corroborate facts or offer an opportunity for comment or clarification. This has real-life consequences, of course primarily for the whistleblowers and their families, but also for the individuals and organisations who continue to pursue this work.

For our part, we deny absolutely the allegations that Global Witness, or its employees, acted in any way that contravenes the high ethical investigative standards we have in place. We stand behind the allegations we have made in relation to Dan Gertler’s business model and the role of Afriland Bank, and remain a proud ally of the work PPLAAF has continued to take forward on this. We have full confidence in the integrity of our work and in our desire to see the truth shared with the Congolese people.

We particularly want to correct the false and highly defamatory allegations against a former Global Witness employee, Carina Tertsakian, which have no factual basis whatsoever. Ms Tertsakian has not worked for Global Witness since 2009. She has not been involved in our investigative work relating to Dan Gertler and played no part in the investigation for Undermining Sanctions that included the information provided by the whistleblowers, Mr Koko and Mr Malela.

We hope and expect the Congolese authorities to now play their part in ensuring a fair and robust legal process, which is not coloured by misinformation and smears, nor by false claims contained in partial complaints.

We call on the Congolese authorities and the international community to completely denounce this judgement, which is based on a grossly unfair, irregular and secretive judicial process marred by misinformation. The sentence of death for the whistle-blowers in this case is not only absurd, but an affront to the basic tenets of international human rights. Whistleblowers, acting in the public interest, must be protected everywhere.