February 2, 2009, in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo

Ossébi, an outspoken columnist for the France-based Congolese online newspaper Mwinda, died in a military hospital in the capital, Brazzaville, 12 days after suffering second-degree burns in a mysterious fire at his home that also killed his girlfriend and her 8- and 10-year-old children.

French Embassy press attaché Bertrand de Marignan told CPJ that Ossébi, who had dual Congolese and French citizenship, died a day before a scheduled medical evacuation to France.

Ossébi's death certificate, obtained by CPJ, identified the cause of death as "cardio-respiratory arrest." No autopsy was done, according to family members. An attending physician, who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case, said that the journalist's condition had been improving, but that burn victims are vulnerable to sudden reversals during recovery.

The mystery surrounding the origin and circumstances of the fire, coupled with Ossébi's activism in citizen journalism, led to numerous questions.

An official Brazzaville fire service report identified the cause of the blaze as a "short circuit," although Lt. Col. Alphonse Yamboula, commander of the Brazzaville fire rescue center, acknowledged in a CPJ interview that the finding was not based on any forensic investigation. The landlord of the house ordered the burnt shell bulldozed and cleared within days of the fire.

On February 25, then-Public Prosecutor Alphonse Dinard Mokondzi appointed Jean Michel Opo, an investigating magistrate, to oversee an inquiry. "A man has died in a fire; we want to know whether it was of criminal or accidental origin," Mokondzi told CPJ. The prosecutor's office took an interest in the case because Ossébi was a journalist and "there is a lot of suspicion," he said.

Just four days before the fire, Ossébi wrote a story accusing officials with Congo's national petroleum authority of improperly negotiating a loan with a French bank, according to CPJ research. Neither the government nor the officials named in the story, including Denis Christel Sassou Nguesso, the president's son, publicly commented on the story, according to local journalists. Alain Akouala, the government's minister of communication, declined to comment when contacted by CPJ.

Ossébi was distinguished for his extensive coverage of an international lawsuit scrutinizing the private assets of the ruling families of Congo, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea in France.

Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization that organized the lawsuit, confirmed the journalist's interest in becoming a plaintiff.

Opo, the magistrate appointed to oversee the investigation, told CPJ in May 2009 that a police commission had submitted a report without witness statements. He was appointed to another position that month. A new investigative magistrate, Jean-Louis Bitumbu, also declined to comment on the investigation.

This is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.