The remains of Patrice Lumumba, the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which were kept by Belgium after his assassination in 1961, will be returned to his family on Monday 20 June.
An official ceremony will follow the return of the remains in the Egmont Palace in Brussels, where the Congolese authorities, as well as Lumumba’s family, will also be represented, according to the cabinet of Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo on Tuesday.
“This moment is considered a new positive turning point in the history of diplomatic relations between Belgium and the DRC, following King Philippe’s visit to the DRC that will take place during the second week of June,” a statement by De Croo’s cabinet reads.
“The remains of Patrice Emery Lumumba refer to the common past of our two countries, including the difficult periods,” according to the statement.
Teeth and finger bones
Lumumba’s remains – several teeth and finger bones – were kept in the possession of former Belgian Chief of Police Gérard Soete, who in 1999 admitted to assisting in Lumumba’s assassination, and dissolving his body in sulfuric acid.
At this moment in time, Soete also took several of Lumumba’s finger bones and multiple teeth, one of which was covered in gold, as “a type of hunting trophy.”
In 2001, a Belgian parliamentary enquiry determined that several Belgian officials were “morally responsible” for Lumumba’s death, and the Belgian Government, then led by Flemish liberal Guy Verhofstadt, officially apologised for the murder a year later.
Soete, however, died in 2000 and was never prosecuted. The remains were always kept in his possession, and his daughter Godelieve Soete even showed one of Lumumba’s teeth during a 2016 interview with Humo. Following the interview, her house was searched by the police, and the remains were taken to be stored in Brussels’ Justice Palace.
On 20 June, the Congolese authorities will “bring the Congolese diaspora together around Patrice Emery Lumumba” before the remains leave Belgian territory, according to the statement by De Croo’s office.
In July 2020, Lumumba’s daughter Juliana already asked for the return of her father’s remains “to the ground of his ancestors” in a letter addressed to King Philippe of Belgium. Later that year, a Belgian court ruled in her favour, stating that the remains could be returned.
Earlier this week, Congolese media already wrote that preparations for the repatriation of Lumumba’s remains had started in their country.
Now, De Croo’s cabinet confirmed that this moment of “emblematic significance” for the Democratic Republic of Congo, “but also for Belgium and beyond,” will happen on 20 June – ten days before the 62nd anniversary of the country’s independence from Belgium on 30 June.
On the celebrations of Congo’s Independence Day in June 2020, King Philippe became the first Belgian royal to express his “deepest regrets” for the Belgian cruelties committed in colonial Congo. Still, he stopped short of offering an official apology, as that could lead to a Congolese demand for repatriations.