The Congolese activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza has been handed down a €1,000 fine for attempting to seize a funeral pole from the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac by a Paris criminal court today. Initially accused of “attempted theft”, he was convicted of “aggravated theft”, although Diyabanza describes his actions as a protest against colonial looting.
Three other activists were handed down suspended fines of €250, €750 and €1,000, while another was found innocent. According to one of their lawyers, Hakim Chergui, Diyabanza has actually been ordered to pay €2,000, as he had a suspended fine of €1,000 from a previous case for which he is now liable. Diyabanza and the other convicted activists are appealing their sentences, but their cases will probably not be heard by a court for a year, Chergui adds, and the fines would only need to be paid if the appeals court upholds today’s verdict.
All five defendants are members of a pan-African group, Unité Dignité Courage, which strives for the “liberation and transformation of Africa” and the restitution of African heritage. They were arrested after removing the funeral pole, originally from Chad, from its socle at the Musée du Quai-Branly on 12 June this year and were accused of damaging the piece by leaving “pieces of wood”.
The judge recognised the “activist” aspect of their act yet ruled that this method of operating should be “discouraged”, stating that: “You have other means to get the attention of the political class and the public.”
Diyabanza has slammed the court’s decision and denied any real intent to steal the work. “The verdict is a big, political, repressive joke; there was nothing legal about it; it was a political decision to dissuade me from continuing [to demand the restitution of African heritage],” he tells The Art Newspaper. “My intention at the museum was political and symbolic, about liberating a piece that was there illegally. On 30 June, I lodged a complaint at the police station of the seventh arrondissement in Paris against the French state and the Musée du Quai-Branly for theft [of looted African heritage] but the judge didn't take this into account in his ruling.”
Chergui, who represented the five activists with barrister Calvin Job, says: “We consider today's judgment disappointing because the convictions regard the activists as thieves, yet they acted during a ‘happening’ to bring attention to the plundering of African heritage and filmed themselves on Facebook. The Paris prosecutor hadn’t asked for a prison sentence as they're political activists but simply reproached them for disturbing the tranquility of the museum and its visitors.”
The Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac has not yet replied to The Art Newspaper’s questions regarding the decision.
Diyabanza was also arrested in Marseilles on 30 July for attempting to take an ivory object from the Musée des Arts Africains, Océaniens, Améridiens, with a decision in that case expected on 17 November. And in September, Diyabanza and other activists livestreamed themselves taking a Congolese funeral statue from the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal in the east of the Netherlands, a stunt that will again take them in front of a judge in January.