One of two Norwegian men jailed in the Democratic Republic of Congo on charges of murder, espionage and conspiracy has been found dead in his cell.
Tjostolv Moland, 32, had been held along with Joshua French since the 2009 murder of their driver in Congo’s jungle.
Lambert Mende, Congo’s information minister, said: “We’re trying to determine whether it was suicide or homicide. It looks like suicide, but we’re not sure.”
The two former Norwegian soldiers were sentenced to death for the murder of their driver, Abedi Kasongo, and attempted murder of a witness.
A court in the north-eastern city of Kinsangani also convicted them of spying for Norway because they were carrying military ID cards at the time. It ordered Norway’s government to pay more than £300 million in damages to Congo. The two men denied the charges and the Norwegian government insisted they were not spies.
The death penalty was later overturned by Congo’s military high court.
Moland had been ill several times since 2009 and was treated for malaria and psychosis.
He worked for the Norwegian military until 2007, then he and French went to work for private security companies in Africa, according to Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten. Among other things, they helped companies keep their ships secure off Somalia’s coast.
The men’s lawyer, Hans Marius Graasvold, said French, a British-Norwegian citizen, was upset over his colleague’s death but in good health.
Mr Graasvold said the pair had been in Congo to do research for a potential start-up of an event company that would arrange extreme tourism holidays.
They had hired Mr Kasongo after their motorbike broke down while travelling through the rainforest in eastern Congo. They consistently denied the charges against them, saying they were innocent and had been ambushed by gunmen.
The British charity Reprieve, which has assisted French’s legal team, has sharply criticised the conviction of the men, saying there was no physical evidence against them and that two people had been paid to testify against them.
Mr Graasvold said he was last in contact with Moland about a week ago and he wasn’t notified of any health problems then. Previously, during his time in prison, Moland has been ill with malaria and other diseases.
Norwegian foreign minister Espen Barth Eide said Moland had been found dead in his cell on Sunday morning and that members of his family in Norway had been informed.
Norwegian authorities have tried to have the two transferred to serve their sentences in Norway and have also worked closely with Britain to put pressure on Congolese officials to pardon the two.
Mr Eide said Congo had not responded to formal communications from him, Foreign Secretary William Hague or Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg.
Mr Graasvold said the two men’s families had earlier criticised the Norwegian authorities for being passive in the case.
“The tragedy that has now occurred shows us it is extremely important that Joshua French returns home soon,” he added.