Four activists from a pan-African organization have been ordered by a Paris court to pay fines ranging from €250 to €1000 for attempting to stealing an artefact from the Quai Branly Museum in June. The court appearance is just one of several for the group's spokesperson, Congolese Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza.
Five members of the pan-African organization known as Unité Dignité Courage (Unity, Dignity, Courage) attempted to steal a 19th century Chadian funeral ‘Sara’ staff from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris on 12 June, to denounce what they call the cultural ‘pillage’ of Africa.
Spokesman for the group, Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza, of Congolese origin took the object in his hands and cried "let’s bring this back home," according to the court, which on Wednesday qualified his act as "aggravated theft" as opposed to "attempted theft", with a "militant" motive.
He was ordered to pay a fine of 1,000 euros – a punishment he says he will appeal.
Three other activists who were with him received suspended fines of 250, 750 and 1,000 euros respectively while a fourth person was released without charge.
The judge said he wished to "discourage" this kind of activism, referring to the on-going debate over whether former colonial powers, such as France, should return artefacts to their original homes in African countries.
"You have other means of attracting the attention of the public and of politicians," he said.
"The legitimacy of getting back what belongs to us cannot be dependent on the judges of a lying government," Diyabanza said as he left the courtroom.
"We will continue the fight by all means necessary. We will not be put off," he said.
His efforts to denounce the vestiges of colonialism in Africa and cultural expropriation have attracted attention from journalists around the world, including the New York Times, as shown in this social media post.
Diyabanza has also been summoned to appear in court on 17 November over the theft of an item made of ivory from the African arts museum in the southern city of Marseille earlier this year.
He will also face court in the Netherlands in January over his attempt to remove a Congolese sculpture from a museum there.
The restitution debate came to a head in France when President Emmanuel Macron promised in 2017 to give back much of Africa’s heritage held by French museums.
He later commissioned a report that identified about two-thirds of the 70,000 objects at the Quai Branly Museum as qualifying for restitution.
Benin’s national museum director hailed last Tuesday’s unanimous vote by French lawmakers to return 26 looted valuables in 2021.