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    How two Utah school friends ended up facing death penalty in Congo

    By Richard Luscombe,

    Marcel Malanga, 21, of Utah sits among others accused of a failed coup attempt at the Ndolo prison in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, on 7 June. Photograph: Arsene Mpiana/AFP/Getty Images

    Two events are uppermost in the minds of residents of West Jordan, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, right now, and they could hardly be more different.

    One is the 4 July Western Stampede rodeo, the city’s hugely popular annual celebration of patriotism and pride. The other is an attempted coup d’état almost 8,500 miles away in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has swept up two of its young residents .

    It was on the sports field at Copper Hills high school five years ago that standout athlete Marcel Malanga befriended teammate Tyler Thompson, the first steps on a fateful path that led the two now 21-year-olds to a military court in Africa, where they are currently pleading for their lives.

    Malanga is the US-born son of self-styled Congolese warlord Christian Malanga, a former army captain and opposition leader whose amateurish assault on Kinshasa’s presidential palace in May , as the leader of a ragtag band of about two dozen paramilitaries, ended with at least six dead, including himself.

    Among the more than 50 people effortlessly rounded up and arrested by the Congolese defense forces were Marcel Malanga, Thompson and a third American, a convicted drug trafficker from Maryland by the name of Benjamin Reuben Zalman-Polun.

    The trio were pictured , with shaven heads and in shackles and jail uniforms, before the military tribunal at their arraignment in the DRC’s capital last Friday. “These acts are punishable by death,” the presiding judge of the Kinshasa-Gombe court told them.

    The extraordinary developments were met by disbelief back in Utah, where both former students are well-known and loved. Citizens were horrified to see video from the DRC, posted on social media , showing the two being roughly handled by troops as they were arrested following the attempted coup.

    “The involvement of our residents in such an international political incident came as both a surprise and a shock,” a spokesperson for Mayor Dirk Burton said in a statement on behalf of the city.

    “Our thoughts are with all those affected by these events, both here at home and abroad.”

    Brittney Sawyer, Marcel Malanga’s mother, insists her son knew nothing of his father’s intentions, and was inadvertently swept up in events outside his knowledge or control.

    “This was an innocent boy following his father,” Sawyer wrote in a Facebook post. “I’m so tired of all the videos being posted all over and being sent to me. God will take care of you people!”

    Yet friends and former teammates of the pair are concerned that Malanga appears to have recruited Thompson under false pretenses to take part in an ill-advised adventure that has already resulted in his father’s death.

    Pointedly, the final line of the West Jordan statement omits any reference to the Malanga family, several of whom live in the city. “Our sympathies are with Tyler Thompson’s family as they navigate this heartbreaking situation,” it says.

    Several people who were on the same Copper Hills school football roster told the Associated Press that Malanga had offered money – up to $100,000 – for them to accompany him to Africa, an odyssey he pitched variously as an opportunity “to work security” for his politician father, and as a service opportunity to help build wells for impoverished communities.

    “He did call me to ask if I wanted to go to Africa for vacation, as well as a few of my other friends, but he did not offer to take more than a single one of us at a time,” Luke Barbee, who shared accommodation in Utah with Malanga last year, told the news agency.

    “He only asked so many of us because he kept getting denied until Tyler said yes to the trip.”

    Thompson’s family believed he had taken a holiday. “We have no idea how he got mixed up in all of this. He was on vacation with his friend’s family, and the next thing we know is he’s been arrested in the DRC,” his stepmother, Miranda Thompson, said in a social media post, adding that his family were “stunned and heartbroken” by the episode.

    “We are certain he did not go to Africa with plans for political activism.”

    Observers believe Marcel Malanga, described by another former friend as “a super-respectful kid [but] rough around the edges”, became increasingly captivated by the aura of his father, whose website featured pictures of him in military fatigues and proclaimed him president of the DRC’s “New Zaire” government in exile.

    Malanga’s father, Christian, first arrived in Utah as a teenager in the 1990s under a refugee resettlement program, served in the DRC military for a spell in his early 20s, then formed his own political party after he was detained for two weeks by the DRC government after standing as an independent in the country’s 2011 election.

    After returning again to the US, he became an agitator in the Congolese diaspora opposed to president Félix Tshisekedi, and frequently called for his overthrow. In Utah, he appears to have hatched the plot that went so badly wrong.

    “To be an egomaniac and put your own life at risk because you think you’re going to become the next president is one thing, but to put your son’s life at risk? That’s an even further leap of faith,” said Jason Stearns , an author and expert on Congolese security and political affairs who lived in the country for more than a decade.

    “I was shocked, and I think a lot of people are still wondering what the hell happened. It wasn’t put together by professionals, and from the kinds of people paraded afterwards in front of the cameras it doesn’t seem there were many professionals [taking part].”

    Stearns said the military court proceedings might help shed more light, but it was still too soon to determine whether Malanga had been acting alone, or had outside assistance. Rwanda-backed M23 rebels opposed to Tshisekedi’s rule are menacing large areas of the DRC , and there is also speculation Malanga’s modest army may have been helped by disloyal government figures.

    “The whole situation is very bizarre and there’s a lot we don’t know,” Stearns said. “But what we definitely know is that it shows how poorly organized the Congolese intelligence service is. Whatever it was, whoever was behind this, however large this conspiracy was, this guy was able to infiltrate the heart of the capital and briefly take the presidential palace, even if the president wasn’t there.

    “It’s possible this is something much larger, something significant, but that depends on what degree Malanga was collaborating with senior officials within the Congolese government, within the opposition or within the region. And that’s not a question at the moment we can ask.”

    Back home in Utah, meanwhile, the families of the detained young men are focused only on their loved ones’ wellbeing, and placing faith in the US government to exercise on their behalf whatever leverage it has with the DRC government it broadly supports .

    “The US embassy was able to visit the detained US citizens and is providing all appropriate consular assistance,” a state department spokesperson said in a statement.

    “US embassy staff also attended Friday’s arraignment and will continue to follow proceedings closely.”

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