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Profile of ex-Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas

The parliament of the Republic of Congo (ROC) overturned on Tuesday a death sentence against former Prime Minister Bernard Kolelas, opposition leader and founder of one of the groups that participated in armed conflicts that rocked the country during the 1990s.

Kolelas, 70, had been tried and sentenced in May 2000 by the country's criminal court while he was in exile in Mali. He was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity that were committed in the ROC, one of Africa's largest petroleum producers.

He has frequently called the death sentence "a parody of justice". All the armed groups that fought during the 1990s have been accused of human rights abuses.

Kolelas was mayor of the country's capital, Brazzaville, between 1993 and 1996 after coming second in the 1992 presidential elections, losing to Pascal Lissouba. He founded the Ninja militia in the early 1990s from members of his political party, the Mouvement Congolais pour la Démocratie et la Développement Integral, with its stronghold in the Pool Department, Kolelas's home region around Brazzaville.

During fighting in 1993 and 1994, Kolelas and his Ninja militias fought Lissouba and his Cocoyes and Zulu militias. During fighting in 1997, in which 10,000 people were killed, Kolelas initially sought to remain neutral and mediate between Lissouba and Dennis Sassou-Nguesso, who headed the Cobra militia, but eventually Kolelas sided with Lissouba.

Sassou-Nguesso took Brazzaville in October 1997 and both Kolelas and Lissouba went into exile.

The Rev Frederic Bitsangao, alias Pasteur Ntoumi, took leadership of the Ninjas and periodic fighting continued. A peace agreement was reached in March 2003 but the Ninjas have been slow to disarm.

Fighting broke out in October in Brazzaville between the Ninjas and the army as Kolelas returned from eight years in exile to bury his wife who had died in Paris. At least six people were killed.

To allow Kolelas to remain in ROC without threat of arrest, President Sassou-Nguesso requested that parliament grant Kolelas amnesty.

The minister of justice and human rights, Gabriel Entcha-Ebia, said that the amnesty was "for the sake of national reconciliation and peace" but he also said that citizens still had the right to file lawsuits against Kolelas.

"They can still demand reparation and damages for what they suffered," he said.

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