Sebastien Nzapali

31.05.2016 ( Last modified: 22.06.2017 )
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Sebastien Nzapali was born in 1952 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously Zaire). He was a member of Mobutu’s presidential guard and, in the period between 1990 and 1995, he led the death squads which spread fear and terror throughout the streets of the capital, Kinshasa. In 1996, he was Commander of the Garde Civile, stationed in Matadi.

During this time, Nzapali allegedly instructed his bodyguards to arrest a customs agent in the port of Matadi. These bodyguards were then said to have taken the victim to the premises of the Garde Civile, locked him up in one of the cells and subjected him to systematic torture for a number of days, on the orders of the defendant. The victim was beaten, in a half naked state, with a whip and then, was severely beaten. After having been abused for a number of days, the victim was freed.

After Mobutu’s fall in 1997, Nzapali escaped to the Netherlands.

legal procedure

In 1998, Nzapali requested asylum in the Netherlands. Dutch immigration authorities refused to grant him refugee status based on concerns over his involvement in serious human rights abuses. Several complaints were launched against Nzapali before the Dutch prosecution service. He was finally arrested in September 2003. Dutch investigators went to DRC to conduct their investigations and interviewed three of the alleged victims, who claimed they were tortured and raped by Sebastien Nzapali.

The trial opened on 24 March 2004. On 7 April 2004, the District Court convicted him for torture and sentenced him to 2 years and six months of prison.


The case was the first trial in the Netherlands based on the Torture Convention Implementation Act of 1988 and on the International Crimes Act of 2003.

The investigations which concluded with his conviction were led by the Netherlands National Investigation Team for War Crimes (Nationaal Opsporingsteam Voor Oorlogsmisdrijven, NOVO), which was set up in 1998.

The NOVO team had been criticised in the Dutch Parliament and in the media because the Public Prosecution Service had for a long time failed to institute criminal proceedings as a result of the team’s investigations.

The NOVO team is responsible for a number of “1F files”. The abbreviation 1F refers to article 1F of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that the Convention shall not apply to an asylum seeker “with respect to whom there are serious reasons for considering that he has committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity”. A large proportion of these files relate to Afghans, the rest to other nationalities.

The reason for which the Public Prosecution Service had for a long time not succeeded in bringing a 1F-case before the courts lies in the practical problems involved in investigating such crimes. To mention particularly are the difficulties involved in tracing and talking to witnesses who are mostly abroad, and persuading them to make a statement, as well as the lapse of time between the commission of the offence and the investigation.

In 2002, Utrecht University evaluated the investigation and prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. As a result of this report, the means at the disposal of this service were doubled and other measures were adopted, amongst which are the improvement of cooperation and information exchange with the services concerned, the strengthening of the control of investigations and the increase in and retention of investigative expertise.

Since then the backlog of 1F cases has been dealt with rapidly, and on a project basis, assisted by experts on the countries of origin of suspects. In the meantime, it is said that the NOVO team has started a variety of investigations that would appear to offer sufficient scope for the successful investigation and prosecution of war criminals.

The case of Nzapali was the NOVO-team’s first success. The culmination of its efforts so far is to be seen in the 1F-trial which led to a successful conviction of the Afghan war criminals Habibullah Jalalzoy and Heshamuddin Hesam, in September-October 2005 (see both profiles on Trial Watch).



After almost 40 years under the dictatorship of Mobutu, a new period of conflicts broke out in 1996 in the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, formerly known as Belgian Congo, Congo-Leopoldville or Zaire), as a result of the spill-over of the civil war raging in the neighboring Rwanda. At the end of the armed conflict – involving Rwanda and Uganda – Mobutu had to abscond, and Laurent-Désiré Kabila become the new Congo’s President.


Already in 1998 Kabila’s alliance with Rwanda and Uganda had turned in a state of hostility. Rebel groups engaged an armed conflict against governmental forces. Due to the involvement of about 25 armed groups and eight States – Angola, Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe supporting DRC’s government, versus Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi supporting the rebels – the war is also known as Great War of Africa.

On 18 January 2001 Laurent Kabila died for the consequences of an attempt to his life, leaving the country in his son Joseph’s hands. After various ceasefire agreements during the years, the war formally ended in 2002. The peace agreement leads to new elections, won by Joseph Kabila.


New armed conflicts continued however in border regions of DRC between governmental forces and rebel groups. Ethnical differences and the high amount of natural resources present in the Kivus and in Ituri are among the main causes of the hostilities. Despite the fragile peace agreements signed in 2007 (Ituri) and in 2009 (Kivus), thousands of people keep dying due to famine and devastations left by the conflicts.


In 2005 the International Court of Justice recognized Uganda’s responsibility for violation of DRC territorial integrity during the Second Congo war, and for the unlawful exploitation of a consistent amount of DRC’s natural resources.

In 2005 Joseph Kabila referred DRC’s situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), asking the Prosecutor to open investigations on crimes committed anywhere on DRC’s territory since the entry into force of the ICC Statute. To date the ICC has indicted five people for the situation in DRC. Among these, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo was the first person ever to be convicted by the ICC.