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The year 2017 will be critical for the Democratic Republic of Congo. After much bloodshed and two years of brutal political repression leading up to and following the December 19, 2016, deadline that marked the end of President Joseph Kabila's constitutionally mandated two-term limit, participants at talks mediated by the Catholic Church signed an agreement on New Year's Eve 2016. It includes a clear commitment that presidential elections will be held before the end of 2017, that President Joseph Kabila will not seek a third term, and that there will be no referendum nor changes to the constitution. While the deal could prove to be a big step toward Congo's first democratic transition since independence, there's still a long road ahead.
Human Rights Watch's Congo team will continue here to provide real-time updates, reports from the field, and other analysis and commentary to help inform the public about the ongoing crisis and to urge policymakers to remain engaged to prevent an escalation of violence and abuse in Congo -- with potentially volatile repercussions across the region.
The Congolese Government Is at War with Its People
Published in openDemocracy
The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is putting its own short-term interests over the well-being of the Congolese people. It is refusing to attend and encouraging others to stay home from today’s international conference in Geneva, a United Nations-led initiative to raise $1.7 billion for emergency assistance to over 13 million people in Congo affected by recent violence.
Government officials deny that there’s a humanitarian crisis. This appears related to a sinister attempt to attract foreign investment and further enrich those in power, while avoiding outside scrutiny.
Congolese security forces and armed groups have killed thousands of civilians in the past two years, adding to at least six million Congolese who have died from conflict-related causes over the past two decades – making the conflict in Congo the world’s deadliest since World War II. Today, some 4.5 million Congolese are displaced from their homes – more than in any other country in Africa. Tens of thousands have fled into Uganda, Angola, Tanzania, and Zambia in recent months – raising the specter of increased regional instability.
Congo is Africa’s biggest copper producer and the world’s largest source of cobalt–which has tripled in value in the past 18 months because of the demand for electric cars. Hundreds of millions of dollars of mining revenue have gone missing in recent years, as Kabila and his family and close associates have amassed fortunes. While Congo’s immense mineral wealth could help address the emergency and other basic needs of an impoverished population, income from any new investments are more likely to end up in the pockets of those in power.
Much of the recent violence is linked to the country’s worsening political crisis. President Joseph Kabila has delayed elections and used violence, repression, and corruption to entrench his hold on power beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit on December 19, 2016.
Kabila has presided over a system of entrenched impunity in which those most responsible for abuses are routinely rewarded with positions, wealth, and power. Congolese security forces have carried out or orchestrated much of the violence, in some cases by creating or backing local armed groups. Well-placed security and intelligence sources have told us that efforts to sow violence and instability are an apparently deliberate “strategy of chaos” to justify further election delays.
Congolese security forces shot dead nearly 300 people during political protests over the past three years. Since December, security forces have hit a new low by firing into Catholic church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and protest marches following Sunday mass.
Meanwhile, attacks on civilians have intensified in eastern Congo’s Ituri province over the past three months. We have documented terrifying accounts of massacres, rapes, and decapitation. More than 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.
While government officials have insisted that the recent violence is the consequence of inter-ethnic tensions, baffled residents say that isn’t so. Many referred to an “invisible hand” – seemingly professional killers came into their villages and hacked people to death in what appeared to be well-planned assaults. Some alleged that government officials may be involved.
But Congo’s deputy minister for international cooperation said last week that “there is no humanitarian crisis.” Congo’s foreign minister said the UN’s description of the humanitarian situation in Congo is “counterproductive for the public image and attractiveness of our country and could scare away potential investors.”
Congolese government officials sent threatening letters to the Netherlands and Sweden, who are supporting the conference, saying Congo would be “forced to impose consequences” if they continue with their preparations, and they successfully convinced the United Arab Emirates to pull out.
Donors should not be intimidated. They should instead work to ensure that adequate funds are raised to meet the life-threatening humanitarian and protection needs of the Congolese people. And just as important, they should work to address the underlying causes of the violence to prevent the crisis from spiraling out of control even further.
That means working closely with regional leaders to ensure Kabila steps down in accordance with the constitution and allows for the organization of free, fair, and credible elections. Congolese need an opportunity to elect a new president who is accountable to the people and who will work to bring an end to Congo’s violence, impunity, and suffering. The Congolese people deserve no less.
Congo’s Kabila Ignores Political Crisis Amid New Repression
A rare press conference by President Joseph Kabila on Friday signaled that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s political crisis was far from resolved and that further repression and restrictions on free expression and assembly may be in store.
As concern has grown over the deadly consequences of Kabila’s efforts to remain in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ended in December 2016, there have been increasing calls domestically and internationally for Kabila to state explicitly he will not be a candidate in proposed December 2018 elections, and not seek to amend the constitution, and that he will step down by the end of 2018. Among those weighing in was a bipartisan group of United States senators in a letter sent to Kabila last week.
In the press conference – his first in five years - Kabila made none of those commitments. While claiming the electoral process was “resolutely under way,” he said only the national electoral commission (CENI) is empowered to decide when exactly the poll will be held. When a journalist asked Kabila whether he would run again, he didn’t say no but asked that a copy of the constitution be given to her.
Despite the rights of Congolese to demonstrate peacefully under the constitution and international law, Kabila said a new law is needed to “reframe” the legality around such demonstrations, noting that “democracy isn’t a fairground.” He claimed to have “burst out in laughter” when he sees those who “pretend to defend the constitution.” Unfortunately, what Kabila considers to be a laughing matter has been the security forces shooting dead, wounding, and jailing hundreds of people peacefully calling for the constitution to be respected.
Kabila also questioned the price tag on the electoral process, which he said could come at the cost of the country’s development: “Should we be cited as the most democratic country in the world, or is development what matters?” he said. “When the time comes,” he added, “courageous decisions” will need to be made. Was this a veiled reference to an upcoming referendum or change to the electoral process that would allow Kabila to stay in power?
Kabila’s remarks came two days after the United Nations human rights office in Congo reported that some 1,176 people were extrajudicially executed by Congolese “state agents” in 2017, representing a threefold increase over two years.
On January 21, thousands of Catholic worshipers and other Congolese protested in several cities and towns, calling for Kabila to step down and allow for the organization of elections. Security forces responded with unnecessary or excessive force, firing teargas and live ammunition to disperse crowds. At least seven people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch’s research, including a 24-year-old woman studying to be a nun, shot dead right outside her church. The January 21 crackdown followed similar protests called by Congo’s Catholic Church lay leaders after Sunday Mass on December 31, when security forces killed at least eight people and injured or arrested scores of others, including many Catholic priests.
Over the past three years, Kabila and those around him have used one delaying tactic after another to postpone elections and entrench their hold on power through brutal repression, largescale violence and human rights abuses, backed by systemic corruption. A Catholic Church-mediated power sharing agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016 provided Kabila another year in power – beyond the end of his constitutional term limit – to implement a series of confidence building measures and organize elections by the end of 2017. But instead, these commitments were largely flouted. Despite CENI’s publication of the electoral calendar on November 5 – which set December 23, 2018 as the new date for elections, with the caveat that numerous “constraints” could push the date back even further – Kabila has not demonstrated that he is preparing to step down, or create a climate conducive to the organization of free, fair, and credible elections.
While some of Congo’s international partners have increased pressure on Kabila’s government, more needs to be done to show that there will be real consequences for further attempts to delay elections and entrench his presidency through repression. Belgium recently announced it is suspending all direct bilateral support to the Congolese government and redirecting its aid to humanitarian and civil society organizations. Other donors should follow suit. In December the US sanctioned Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, one of Kabila’s close friends and financial associates who “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals” in Congo, as well as a number of individuals and companies associated with Gertler. Yet the impact of these actions would be much greater if the UN Security Council, the European Union, and the US work together to expand targeted sanctions against those most responsible for serious human rights abuses in Congo and those providing financial or political support to the repressive tactics.
Ultimately, Congo’s partners are going to need to decide whether their interests lie with supporting an abusive, dictatorial government, or with respecting and advancing the rights of the Congolese people – and what that means in terms of concrete action.
15-Year-Old Peaceful Protester Beaten and Detained
On Wednesday, Binja Happy Yalala, a 15-year-old secondary school student on Idjwi Island in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, was beaten by police who accused her of being a sorcerer and detained her for over 10 hours. Her actual “crime” was that she had participated in a peaceful march organized by the citizens’ movement “C’en Est Trop” (“This is Too Much”).
The marchers were responding to a call from other citizens movements and civil society groups, and backed by political opposition leaders, for Congolese to mobilize on November 15 and demand that President Joseph Kabila leave office by the end of 2017 in accordance with the constitution and the New Year’s Eve agreement signed late last year.
The Idjwi protesters arrived at their local administrative office, singing the national anthem, to deliver a memo when the police commander gave the order to arrest them.
“The police immediately followed the order with brutality and violence,” said Binja’s father, who had joined the march with his daughter. “Some of us started to run, but others were taken immediately, including myself. They beat us with their fists and batons and kicked us. They said to us: ‘You all are rebels. We’re the ones who control the law. You will see how we’ll make you suffer.’”
When Binja saw her father and the others being arrested, she said she couldn’t just stand by and watch.
“I was scared, but it also made my heart ache because I didn’t understand what my father and the others had done wrong,” Binja told Human Rights Watch. “So I went up and asked the police to let them go. When they didn’t listen to me, I told them that I wasn’t going to leave without my father, so if they don’t release him they should arrest me too. Then without hesitating, one of them grabbed me roughly by the arm, beat my back with his gun, and tied my hands tightly behind my back. It hurt a lot, and I cried out. They then put me in the cell with my father and the others.”
Binja, her father, and the 11 others detained were soon taken to Idjwi territory’s main prison.
“They asked us a lot of questions about what had happened,” Binja said. “They beat my father because they said he had taught me things. He tried in vain to explain that I wasn’t a member of the movement. They then accused me of being a sorcerer, and they beat me again with their batons.”
Binja said that when they were all finally released about 10 p.m., she hurt all over and could barely walk.
In total, Congolese security forces detained at least 52 people on November 15 while they were participating in or planning small marches and demonstrations in Goma, Kasindi, Kindu, Kisangani, Kinshasa, and Idjwi. Most were later released, but eight remain in detention, including six in Goma and two in Kinshasa.
Two activists who police arrested in Goma on Monday while encouraging people to join the planned protests were still in detention.
On November 14, the day before the protests, the provincial police commander in Goma had instructed his forces to “mercilessly repress” the planned demonstrations, in a filmed message that was widely shared on social media.
The next morning, many people across Congo – including in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Mbandaka, Matadi, Mbuji-Mayi, Kananga, Goma, Idjwi, Beni, Kasindi, Butembo and Kisangani – woke up to the sight of a heavy deployment of security forces on their cities’ main roads. In several cities, streets were less crowded than usual, shops and markets remained closed, and many students stayed home from school. People stayed home as a sign of protest or to stay safe from any violent crackdown, or both. The few protesters who dared go out on the streets were often quickly arrested by security forces or dispersed by teargas.
The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) had urged Congolese authorities on November 14 to respect “the freedom to demonstrate in a peaceful and restrained manner” and to “allow all voices to express themselves calmly and peacefully.” The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reinforced this appeal, calling on Congolese authorities to “halt the inflammatory rhetoric against protestors” and to ensure security personnel “receive clear instructions that they will be held accountable for their conduct during law and order operations in the context of demonstrations, regardless of their ranks or affiliation.”
In a joint statement published yesterday, the European Union, American, Swiss, and Canadian missions in Congo called on Congolese security forces to refrain from the excessive use of force and warned that those responsible could be held to account, including in an individual manner.
Many political prisoners and activists, arrested during previous political demonstrations or for their participation in other peaceful political activities, remain in detention. For a list and summary of a selection of these cases, please see here.
Congolese authorities should immediately release all those held for the peaceful expression of their political views, and should start working to create a climate conducive to the organization of free, fair elections.
New DR Congo Electoral Calendar Faces Skepticism Amid More Protests, Repression
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s national electoral commission (CENI) has set December 23, 2018 as the date for presidential, legislative, and provincial elections – more than two years after the end of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two term-limit.
According to the calendar released yesterday by the CENI, the new president would be sworn in on January 12, 2019, and the whole electoral cycle, including local elections, would continue until February 16, 2020. As with past electoral calendars that CENI and government officials have blatantly disregarded, the new calendar includes a list of 15 legal, financial, and logistical “constraints” that could impact the timeline.
The CENI’s announcement comes about a week after the United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley visited Congo, where she announced before meeting with Kabila that Congo’s long-delayed elections must be held by the end of 2018 or they would not receive international support.
While some diplomats might see the new calendar as a sign of progress, many Congolese are rightly skeptical. Over the past several years, Kabila and his coterie have blocked the organization of elections as the deadline for when he needs to step down keeps getting extended. Senior US officials and other diplomats delivered similar messages to Kabila in the lead-up to December 19, 2016, the end of Kabila’s two-term limit. When that deadline passed with no progress toward elections, the UN Security Council and others pressed Kabila to organize elections by the end of 2017, in accordance with a Catholic Church-mediated power sharing arrangement signed on December 31, 2016, known as the New Year’s Eve agreement.
Kabila and his ruling coalition then disregarded the main terms of the agreement, as Kabila entrenched his hold on power through corruption, large-scale violence, and brutal repression against the opposition, activists, journalists, and peaceful protesters. Security force officers went so far as to implement an apparently deliberate “strategy of chaos” and orchestrated violence, especially in the southern Kasai region, where up to 5,000 people have been killed since August 2016. Government and CENI officials have announced since July that elections could not be held in 2017 as called for in the New Year’s Eve agreement, ostensibly due to the violence in the Kasais.
Meanwhile, there has been no independent oversight or audit of the ongoing voter registration process. Civil society organizations and political opposition leaders have raised concerns about possible large-scale fraud. Some fear a deeply flawed electoral list could be used to push through a constitutional referendum process that could remove term limits and allow Kabila to run for a third term. Kabila himself has repeatedly refused to say publicly and explicitly that he will not be a candidate in future elections. The extra year the new calendar gives Kabila allows him more time to attempt constitutional or extra-constitutional means to stay in power.
The Struggle for Change (LUCHA) citizens’ movement strongly denounced the calendar presented by the CENI yesterday as “fantasy” and called on the Congolese people to mobilize to defend themselves peacefully against the “shameful maneuver by Kabila and his regime to gain more time to accomplish their goal of staying in power indefinitely.” LUCHA stated that the movement no longer recognizes Kabila and his government as the legitimate representatives of the Congolese people and urged Congo’s international partners to do the same.
Other citizens’ movements, human rights activists, and opposition leaders made similar calls, denouncing the new CENI calendar, urging the Congolese people to mobilize, and calling for a “citizens’ transition” without Kabila to allow for the organization of credible elections.
Meanwhile, the repression against opposition leaders and supporters, human rights and pro-democracy activists, peaceful protesters, and journalists has continued unabated. Security forces arrested around 100 opposition party supporters and pro-democracy activists during protests in Lubumbashi, Goma, Mbandaka, and Beni over the past two weeks. Many of them were later released. During the protest in Goma on October 30, security forces shot dead five civilians, including an 11-year-old boy, and wounded 15 others.
More protests are planned across the country in the coming days to reject the CENI’s newly announced calendar. Congolese government officials and security forces should not use unnecessary or excessive force against protesters, tolerate peaceful protests and political meetings, and allow activists, opposition party leaders, and journalists to move around freely and conduct their work independently, without interference.
Congo’s international partners, including the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, should work to protect peaceful protesters and individuals at risk and show their support for the Congolese people’s quest for a more democratic and rights-respecting future.
Three-Year Mystery Behind DR Congo’s Beni Massacres Unravels
New research has cast light onto one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s most gruesome mysteries – the slaughter of more than 800 people in Beni territory that began three years ago this week.
The more than 120 massacres in eastern Congo, in which assailants methodically hacked people to death with axes and machetes or fatally shot them, continued through August this year and have baffled analysts. But a new investigative report by the New York University-based Congo Research Group offers a breakthrough in understanding the dynamics and gives hope that perpetrators will one day face justice.
Based on two years of painstaking research, the report identifies distinct killing phases and an array of diverse armed actors responsible for the massacres: the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist Ugandan rebel group based in eastern Congo; former officers from the Congolese Patriotic Army (APC); the armed branch of the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), the Ugandan-backed rebellion during Congo’s second war from 1998 to 2003; and various other local militia groups; as well as elements of the Congolese army. Instead of the killings being committed by a cohesive group with a singular political agenda, these actors constantly shifted alliances fighting alongside and against each other.
During the Rwandan-backed M23 rebellion in eastern Congo in 2012 and 2013, remnants of the APC in Beni territory mobilized and established an informal alliance with the M23 fighters, according to the report. After the M23 was defeated in November 2013, the Congolese army turned its focus to Beni, officially to defeat the ADF rebels, who had been present on Congolese territory for many years. According to the report, former APC officers in Beni perceived these operations as an attempt to dismantle the lucrative political and economic networks they had established in Beni, including through collaboration with the ADF and other local militia groups. In response, they orchestrated the first of a series of small-scale killings in Beni in 2013. These initial attacks were reportedly meant to show the Congolese government’s failure to protect the population, and thereby delegitimize its authority and pave the way for a new rebellion.
Once the killings began, some Congolese army officers under the command of Gen. Akili Mundos decided to co-opt the network of former APC officers, ADF combatants, and other local militia fighters, the report found. Instead of ending the violence, the army began working together with members of the same network responsible for the initial killings, allowing the killings to continue on a much larger scale starting in October 2014.
With Pandora’s Box opened, the web of foes and friends changed constantly with various local militia groups taking a more prominent role as the massacres continued. All the while, the Congolese government blamed all the violence on so-called “radical ADF terrorists,” in an apparent attempt to mislead the Congolese population, foreign diplomats, journalists, and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, which continued to provide uncritical support to the army.
While there are still many unanswered questions, the new Congo Research Group report sheds important light on those responsible for the Beni massacres. It should serve as a basis for credible judicial investigations as well as targeted sanctions by the UN Security Council and others.
International attention on Congo has shifted from the Beni crisis to Congo’s southern Kasai region, where new massacres have killed more than 5,000 people and displaced some 1.4 million from their homes since August 2016, according to the UN. To finally break these devastating cycles of violence and impunity, the Beni massacres cannot be forgotten. Strong action is needed to show that there are consequences for those responsible – no matter their rank or position.
Congolese Authorities Arrest, Later Release 49 Activists Holding Anti-Kabila Protests
On September 30, Democratic Republic of Congo security forces arbitrarily arrested 49 activists from several citizens’ movements protesting the failure to hold presidential elections before the end of the year.
Activists from Struggle for Change (LUCHA), Countdown (Compte à Rebours), and Bell of the People (Kengele ya Raia) were arrested in Congo’s eastern cities of Goma and Kisangani. Small protests were also held in Bukavu and Bandundu.
The activists were peacefully protesting the electoral commission’s failure to call the presidential elections in time for them to be held before December 31, 2017, as called for in the Catholic Church-mediated agreement signed on December 31, 2016. Under Congo’s constitution, national elections need to be announced at least three months before the voting date, which means the deadline to hold elections during 2017 has now passed.
In Goma, activists tried to deliver a letter to the electoral commission’s office, but they were prevented by riot police. “They cornered us with two police trucks and tried to take our banners from us,” one LUCHA activist told Human Rights Watch. “Some of us managed to get away but the rest of us were forced onto the police trucks.”
The 16 activists arrested in Kisangani were released later that day, while the 33 activists in Goma were released three days later without charge. These latest arrests show the government’s intent to quickly quash peaceful protests before they build momentum.
Last week, four LUCHA activists in Mbuji-Mayi – Nicolas Mbiya, Josué Cibuabua, Mamie Ndaya, and Josué Kabongo – were released from prison. They had been arbitrarily arrested in mid-July for investigating the voter registration process in Kasai Oriental province. Mbiya and Cibuabua had already been detained for nearly a week in May for demanding the publication of an electoral calendar. Earlier, from December 2016 to February, Mbiya was also detained with another LUCHA activist, Jean Paul Mualaba Biaya, for protesting President Joseph Kabila’s decision to stay in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.
The September 30 protests came a week after President Kabila’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In his public remarks and in reports that have emerged about his private meetings with various foreign officials in New York, Kabila did nothing that would suggest that he is preparing to leave power, making no clear commitments about when elections would be held or that he would not be a candidate.
Earlier this week, a coalition of United States senators led by Cory Booker wrote to US President Donald Trump, urging the US government to “use the means at our disposal” if the Congolese government continues to refuse to implement the “spirit and letter” of the December 31, 2016 agreement, “including sanctions designations under Executive Order 13671 on DRC, anti-money-laundering regulations, and additional tools available under the Global Magnitsky Act – to affect the incentives of individuals who have strong influence over President Kabila to incentivize them to urge him to change course.”
The US – and Congo’s other international partners, including the European Union – would do well to act now, before it’s too late and more Congolese pay the price for Kabila’s unconstitutional intransigence.
Heavy Fighting in Eastern DR Congo, Threats to Civilians Increase
The risk of increased violence and deteriorating security for civilians in South Kivu province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has spiked sharply, as a coalition of armed groups moved in on the province’s second largest city, Uvira, last week.
The potentially destabilizing impact of a brewing rebellion in the midst of Congo’s ongoing political crisis does not bode well for civilians, already fatigued from two decades of conflict.
The stated goal of the so-called National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (Coalition nationale du peuple pour la souveraineté du Congo, CNPSC) is to topple the government of President Joseph Kabila, who they say is illegitimate following his refusal to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit last December. The coalition, which includes at least several hundred fighters from numerous armed groups, has also been referred to as the Alliance of Article 64, a reference to Article 64 of the constitution, which says the Congolese people have an obligation to thwart the efforts of those who seek to take power by force or in violation of the constitution.
Others suggest this is an effort by the Congolese government to stoke further chaos and justify election delays, just as the violence in the Kasais has been used as the main excuse for why elections won’t be held before the end of 2017, as called for in the Catholic Church mediated agreement of last December.
The coalition began fighting the Congolese army in late June in Maniema province and Fizi, the southernmost territory of South Kivu, and has moved steadily north, and taken control of several villages along Lake Tanganyika in the past week. The Congolese army and United Nations peacekeepers sent in reinforcements and have kept the rebels out of the city of Uvira, a strategic trading hub.
The CNPSC is led by self-proclaimed “General” William Yakutumba, commander of one of the most powerful armed groups in South Kivu, which is largely made up of ethnic Bembe fighters. His “Mai Mai Yakutumba” group has committed many abuses over the past decade, including attacks on aid workers, large-scale theft of cattle, piracy on Lake Tanganyika, and illegal exploitation of gold and taxation of the population. The group claims to represent the interests of various local ethnic groups and to protect them against those they perceive as “foreigners,” especially members of the Banyamulenge, a minority ethnic group in the province.
The CNPSC’s move on Uvira came less than two weeks after Congolese security forces used excessive force to quash a protest at a Burundian refugee camp in Kamanyola, to the north of Uvira, killing around 40 Burundian refugees and wounding more than 100 others. A security force officer was also killed.
The show of force by the CNPSC and increased armed mobilization in South Kivu around the national political crisis is a bad omen for Congo. With Kabila bent on staying in power, violence and instability will likely only increase, with ordinary civilians bearing the brunt of it.
Congo Should Release All Political Prisoners
The Democratic Republic of Congo should release the dozens of people detained simply because of their political views or for exercising the rights to peaceful protest or free expression.
Yesterday, Human Rights Watch joined 44 international and Congolese rights organizations in an urgent appeal, calling for the release of nine human rights and pro-democracy activists detained in Lubumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi. Human Rights Watch also published a list list today, detailing 30 people arrested between January 2015 and July 2017 – a small sample of the hundreds arbitrarily arrested in the sweeping crackdown of those opposed to President Joseph Kabila’s extending his hold on power.
These individuals, who are all still in detention, include political opposition leaders and supporters, human rights and pro-democracy youth activists, journalists, and those suspected of having links to political opposition leaders. Many have been held for weeks or months in secret detention, without charge and without access to families or lawyers. Some allege they were mistreated or tortured and some are suffering serious health complications. Many were put on trial on trumped-up charges.
This list is not exhaustive and only includes cases in which Human Rights Watch was able to confirm the circumstances of arrest. Hundreds of other protesters and political opposition supporters have been arrested over the past three years, many of whom remain in detention. Because Human Rights Watch has not confirmed the grounds for their arrests, these additional cases are not included in our list.
Human Rights Watch has also documented the cases of 222 prisoners arrested since January 2015 who were subsequently released, often after months of arbitrary detention.
Congolese authorities should ensure all detainees have access to necessary medical care, their family members, and a lawyer. All those detained because of peaceful political views or activities or alleged connections to political opposition leaders should be released immediately and cleared of all charges. Congolese authorities should also investigate and appropriately sanction and prosecute security force, intelligence, and government officials implicated in cases of illegal arrest and detention, mistreatment or torture, and political interference in judicial proceedings.
Human Rights Watch’s list of political prisoners in detention can be found here.
Detained Opposition Leader Forcibly Removed from Hospital
Congolese opposition leader Franck Diongo has told Human Rights Watch that Congolese military intelligence officials and Republican Guard soldiers removed the intravenous drip and dragged him out of his hospital bed in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, last Thursday, August 31. Diongo was then taken back to Kinshasa’s central prison.
Diongo, who appeared to be in a seriously weakened state when he spoke to Human Rights Watch, said that the Republican Guard and military intelligence soldiers showed no documents and did not speak to the doctors before forcing him to leave the hospital. In a letter sent on Sunday to a doctor who treated him in the past, quoted by Actualité.cd, Diongo writes that he “vomits blood” and suffers from “severe headaches and stomach pains,” and asks to be returned to the hospital. Denial of medical care in such cases amounts to cruel and inhuman treatment in violation of the Convention Against Torture, to which Congo is a party.
Diongo is president of the opposition party Movement of Progressive Lumumbists (MLP), part of the Rassemblement opposition coalition. He was a member of parliament at the time of his arrest.
Authorities in Kinshasa arrested Diongo on December 19, 2016, the last day of President Joseph Kabila’s second and final term in office, after Diongo and his colleagues allegedly apprehended, held, and beat three Republican Guard soldiers wearing civilian clothes. Diongo said he feared they had been sent to attack him. “Security forces staged a stunt to arrest me,” he later told us.
Diongo was detained in several locations and says he was severely beaten in the following days, including at the Tshatshi military camp and the military intelligence headquarters in Kinshasa. According to the United Nations, Diongo was “subjected to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatments” while he was held by military intelligence officers.
Congo’s Supreme Court of Justice sentenced Diongo to five years in prison on December 28, 2016, following a hasty trial that he attended in a wheelchair and on an intravenous drip, which his lawyers said was due to the treatment he endured during arrest and detention. According to Diongo and his lawyers, this amounted to torture. Diongo was convicted of “aggravated arbitrary arrest” and “illegal detention.” As a member of parliament, Diongo was tried by the Supreme Court; he has no possibility to appeal the judgement.
After his conviction, Diongo was sent to Kinshasa’s central prison, still in a wheelchair. As Diongo’s health continued to deteriorate, the doctor treating him in prison submitted a report to the prison’s director, who then wrote to the minister of justice, asking for Diongo to be treated in a specialized hospital. Diongo was finally transferred to the Centre Médical de Kinshasa on August 18. As his treatment was ongoing, Diongo was then forcibly removed from this hospital last Thursday.
In June, Diongo’s lawyers submitted a request in his name to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The document, seen by Human Rights Watch, argues that Congolese authorities did not respect minimum fair trial standards and that Diongo was targeted because of his political opinions. They also made the case that Diongo’s right to his conviction and sentence being reviewed by a higher tribunal was violated given that he was convicted in the first and last instance by the Supreme Court. If the Group decides that “the arbitrary nature of the deprivation of liberty is established,” it will render an opinion to that effect and make recommendations to the Congolese government.
Diongo also faced problems attempting to register to vote, which would be a pre-condition for him to run again for parliament or another office. On June 21, when other prisoners were registering to vote, the director of the voter registration center at Kinshasa’s central prison did not allow Diongo to register, without offering any reason. While Diongo’s conviction stripped him of his status as a member of parliament, he did not lose his civil and political rights, including the right to register to vote.
“The members of my political party and myself are victims of persecution and harassment,” Diongo told Human Rights Watch. “I am a fierce opponent who refused to participate in the two dialogues with Joseph Kabila … knowing that President Kabila is not a sincere person, and that he’d only want to buy time to extend his presidency.”
Congolese authorities should urgently ensure that Diongo is given the medical care he needs, that he can register to vote like other Congolese citizens, and that the legality and necessity of his detention are reviewed, given the serious irregularities and mistreatment surrounding his case.
Across the Democratic Republic of Congo, dozens of political opposition members and activists are in detention for participating in peaceful demonstrations, speaking out against election delays, or criticizing government policies. Many have been held in secret detention without charge or access to family or lawyers. Others have been put on trial on trumped-up charges. Many suffer regular beatings and horrendous living conditions, which have received little international attention.
‘Manifesto of the Congolese Citizen’ Calls for a Transition without Kabila
Today, about 40 leaders of citizens’ movements, civil society organizations, Catholic Church representatives, and other independent Congolese leaders launched the “Manifesto of the Congolese Citizen,” following a three-day meeting in Paris to discuss the “return of constitutional order” to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The two-page document makes the case that President Joseph Kabila has violated the country’s constitution by using “force and financial corruption” to stay in power and “entrench his regime of depredation, pauperization, and the pillaging of the country’s resources for the benefit of himself, his family, his sycophants, and his foreign allies in Africa and beyond.”
It further states that Kabila and a “group of individuals” have “deliberately refused to organize elections,” in defiance of the constitution’s two-term presidential term limit and the Catholic-Church mediated New Year’s Eve agreement, a power-sharing deal calling for elections to be held by December 2017. In doing so, “zones of insecurity” and “deadly tragedies” have emerged across the country, “as part of a clear objective” to declare a “state of emergency” and delay elections, while “terror has once again become the preferred method of government, making it impossible for the Congolese people to claim their rights,” according to the document.
The manifesto calls on the Congolese people “to perform their sacred duty, using peaceful and non-violent means, to thwart President Joseph Kabila’s attempt to remain in power after December 31, 2017, in application of Article 64 of the constitution.” It “demands the resignation” of Kabila and calls for a “citizens’ transition” whose primary objective would be the organization of credible elections, and which would be led by leaders who could not be candidates in the future elections and who would be appointed after national consultations.
The document also called for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners and the reopening of media outlets, and for security forces to “protect” citizens and not allow themselves to be “used as instruments of repression.”
“All citizens of Congo” are called upon to “adhere massively” to the manifesto, and to “participate actively in the campaign of peaceful and non-violent actions to bring about a return to constitutional, democratic order.”
Finally, the document calls for a “new system of governance … built on an independent judiciary, security services who are there to protect our citizens, free expression of our constitutional freedoms, transparent and fair management of all national resources, and strong and democratic institutions that put the interests of the Congolese citizen at the heart of every political initiative.”
The participants at the Paris meeting, which was initiated by the Institute for Democracy, Governance, Peace, and Development in Africa, also worked to develop an “action plan” for peaceful mobilization.
Confusion Surrounds DR Congo Sect Protests Leaving at Least 27 Dead
At least 27 people were killed in clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Monday, as supporters of Bundu dia Kongo (BDK), a political religious sect, took to the streets in Kinshasa and Kongo Central province.
According to witnesses, security forces fired live ammunition into crowds, hitting demonstrators and bystanders.
The demonstrators were ostensibly protesting President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. However, the political opposition and well-placed sources contend that the authorities allowed the protests with the aim of creating chaos and repression that would justify the imposition of further election delays.
Residents from the area surrounding Kinshasa’s central prison in Selembao neighborhood and others in Bumbu, Kimbaseke, Matete, Masina, N’djili, Ngaliema, and Ngiri-Ngiri neighborhoods told Human Rights Watch they either heard gunshots or saw protesters marching through the streets beginning about 9 a.m. In Kongo Central, protests were held in the provincial capital, Matadi, as well as in Boma, Kimpese, Kinzau-Mvuete, Kisantu, Kwilu-Ngongo, Lukula, and Muanda.
Groups of protesters wearing red bandanas and holding sticks and palm nut husks marched along the main roads of Kinshasa and towns in Kongo Central, while chanting slogans hostile to Kabila. According to a police statement, “assailants” carried shotguns and crude weapons. Some of the protesters in Kinshasa held banners that read: “Congo for Congolese, Rwanda for Rwandans,” and “Hyppolite Kanambe alias Kabila and his brothers, get out!” – a reference to allegations by some BDK members and others that Kabila is not of Congolese origin. Signs calling on “Kabila and Rwandans” to leave Congo were also seen in Kongo Central, including in Boma, Kwilu-Ngongo, and Lukula. (Xenophobic messages that amount to incitement to violence or discrimination should be criminally prosecuted.)
The protests appeared to have been prompted by an ultimatum issued by the BDK leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi, in late June. Nsemi, who had been arrested on March 3, 2017 and charged with incitement to tribal hatred and violence, and insulting the head of state, among other charges, escaped from Kinshasa’s central prison during a massive prison break in May, and his whereabouts are unknown. In a video message shared on social media that appears to have been filmed on June 27, Nsemi called on “the Rwandans and President Kabila” to leave Congo before August 7, threatening that his supporters would apply the “divine law” of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” if they failed to comply.
Human Rights Watch research found that at least 23 people were killed in Kinshasa during Monday’s protests, including 11 BDK members and 10 apparent bystanders shot dead by security forces, and two police officers killed by the protesters. In Kongo Central, at least two BDK members were killed in Matadi, and one BDK member and a military police officer in Muanda. Human Rights Watch has received additional unverified reports of others killed in Kongo Central province and Kinshasa.
A witness in Kinshasa said BDK members had encouraged people to follow them to “chase” Kabila from power, asking the men to put sand in their trousers’ pockets and the women to put sand in their underwear, supposedly to make them invincible to bullets. While the protesters were marching in Selembao neighborhood, police fired in the air to disperse them. One of the protesters launched a palm nut shell, using a stick, at a police officer. The police officer was hit in the head and killed. Another witness in Kinshasa said military police officers shot dead four people in the Marché de la Liberté, a market in Masina neighborhood, soon after BDK members had marched through the market. The police first shot in the air to disperse demonstrators, and then soldiers arrived and fired at point-blank range into the crowd of market vendors and shoppers fleeing the commotion.
Several groups of protesters were allowed to demonstrate without interference, accompanied by members of the Congolese security forces who made no effort to block or stop the protests, according to witnesses and photographs and video footage we reviewed. This was in stark contrast to other recent planned protests, including the July 31 nationwide protests called for by a coalition of citizens movements and human rights organizations known as the Collective of Civil Society Actions (CASC), and supported by many opposition parties. In that instance, security forces deployed heavily in advance to prevent the protests from going forward, fired teargas and live bullets to disperse those who protested, and arrested at least 128 people across the country.
Similarly, in advance of the “ville morte,” or general strike, called for on Tuesday and Wednesday by the Rassemblement opposition coalition, security forces deployed heavily in Congo’s main cities from the early hours to try to deter anyone from protesting in the streets. The Congolese government even instructed telecommunications companies to restrict social media access, in an apparent effort to prevent people from sharing or posting photographs of the empty streets in Kinshasa and other towns where the ville morte was respected.
The unexpected willingness of the Congolese authorities not to prevent Monday’s protests sparked allegations that the government sought to create a situation that would lead to even tighter restrictions on demonstrations and political space and further delays in the organization of elections. According to a statement by opposition leader and presidential aspirant Moïse Katumbi’s spokesperson, Monday’s demonstrations and resulting violence was intended by the government to “create chaos” and “impose a state of emergency.”
An individual close to the security forces told Human Rights Watch that the protests and attacks on Monday were “all theater; the goal is to create chaos everywhere.” He alleged, though we could not confirm, that soldiers were mixed in with real BDK supporters, and security forces had been instructed to give “free passage” to demonstrators. He said that the authorities intended to use the pretext of the BDK movement “to create a militia that the government can attack. What they did with the Kamuina Nsapu in the Kasais, now they’ll do in [Kongo Central].” He said that the “police officers and soldiers who were killed or injured hadn’t been informed of the operation in advance.”
In an official ceremony in Kinshasa on Wednesday with the ministers of defense, interior, and communications, and the head of the national intelligence agency (ANR), among others, the police presented 31 suspects from Monday’s protests who they alleged had attempted a “coup d’état.” The police spokesperson also said that 19 people were killed during Monday’s violence and seven others wounded.
Prompt and impartial investigations are needed to determine who was responsible for Monday’s loss of life. Violence by protesters or the excessive use of force by the security forces should not be tolerated, and those responsible should be appropriately held to account.
Crackdown on Students, Opposition as Government Blames Them for Kinshasa Attacks
Last Friday, 15 alleged perpetrators of a slew of recent attacks in Kinshasa – including the assault on the city’s central prison in May, which allowed some 4,000 prisoners to escape – were paraded before the media at police headquarters. The ceremony was attended by numerous, high-ranking officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo – including the director of the national intelligence agency (ANR), the national police commissioner, the prosecutor general, the governor of the city of Kinshasa, the vice prime minister and interior minister, the justice minister, and the government spokesperson.
Many of the alleged perpetrators are members of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) opposition political party of the late Etienne Tshisekedi. Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases over the past two months of UDPS members who were victims of illegal arrests or enforced disappearances. At least four of the individuals presented to the press in Friday’s ceremony were among the cases we documented; until that day, their families did not even know where their loves ones were being held or if they were even still alive.
Ben Tshimanga, a student at Kinshasa’s Institut Supérieur des Techniques Médicales (ISTM), was also in the group of 15. In the early evening on July 20, military intelligence officers wearing civilian clothes with masks covering their faces approached Tshimanga and a group of his friends while they were chatting outside a dormitory at the University of Kinshasa (UNIKIN), the students later told us. Tshimanga at first managed to escape, but the officers grabbed two of his friends, threw them into a black jeep, and drove away. Tshimanga was then arrested later in the evening and taken to an unknown location.
One of the friends, Freddy Likambelo, a student at UNIKIN, was taken to a military detention center at Camp Kokolo, he later told us. The other, Aimée Lowadji, a nurse and former ISTM student who lives with her aunt at the UNIKIN campus, was detained at the provincial police headquarters, she told us later. Tshimanga, Likambelo, and Lowadji are all members of the UDPS. Lowadji and Likambelo also hold positions with the Mouvement des Tshikedistes pour le Changement (MTC), an international network of UDPS supporters.
When other students learned of the arrests that evening, they started to protest but were quickly dispersed by security forces who arrived and fired live bullets in the air, according to several students who were present. The next morning, a larger crowd of students gathered in front of the university’s administrative building, demanding the release of their fellow students and chanting hostile slogans about President Joseph Kabila, who has held on to power beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. Some students threw rocks at the university’s administrative building, shattering its windows, and burned vehicles parked nearby, witnesses said.
Five police jeeps soon arrived at the scene, and police officers fired live bullets and teargas at the protesters. Some students responded by throwing rocks in the direction of the police officers. Several students who appeared to have been hit by bullets were quickly evacuated by the police, according to witnesses. Many other students were beaten by the police or arrested.
Likambelo was released soon after the protest on July 21, and Lowadji was freed on July 22. “Someone in a face mask interrogated me,” Likambelo later told us. “He asked if I knew the reason for my arrest, and I said no. Then he threatened me but let me go. He said they were only releasing me because I’m popular and my colleagues had demonstrated for my release, but he warned that they’d be watching me closely.”
Tshimanga had been held in detention at an unknown location, without access to his family or lawyer, until he reappeared Friday, his family said.
The accusations made by intelligence and police officials at Friday’s ceremony contradict earlier claims by Congo’s justice minister and the government spokesperson, who blamed the attack on Kinshasa’s prison on followers of the Bundu dia Kongo politico-religious sect.
The officials at Friday’s ceremony did not present any evidence or explanation indicating how or why Tshimanga and the others would have orchestrated these attacks. Many fear that the charges are baseless and were brought as part of an effort to silence the political opposition and their supporters. There are also concerns that these accusations might be intended to lay the groundwork for future judicial proceedings against UDPS party leaders and other members.
During Friday’s ceremony, the police also announced they were looking for other suspected assailants still at large and that a payment of US $2,000 would be made to anyone who turned in one of the suspects alive. They cited the names of some of those they were looking for, including the pro-democracy youth activist and former member of the UDPS youth league Rossy Mukendi. Mukendi had been arrested previously on May 17, 2017, with 13 other youth activists who were protesting the bad state of the roads in their neighborhood in Kinshasa. The 13 others were released two days later, while Mukendi was held at a military intelligence detention center, without charge and without access to his family or lawyer, until he was released on June 15.
Congolese authorities should either urgently release Tshimanga and other opposition and pro-democracy activists, or promptly charge them with a credible offense and ensure they are given a fair and credible trial, free of political interference.
Scores of Arrests During Protests Across DR Congo
Congolese authorities arrested at least 128 people in nine cities across the country today as youth movements and opposition parties called for nationwide demonstrations to protest the announcement that elections will not be held this year.
An agreement to hold a vote before the end of December was the key commitment in the Catholic Church-mediated agreement signed on New Year’s Eve 2016, after President Joseph Kabila failed to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.
According to witnesses, security forces arrested at least 57 people today in Goma, 24 in Kinshasa, 10 in Butembo, eight in Beni, eight in Lubumbashi, seven in Mbandaka, five in Kasindi, five in Bukavu, and four in Kindu. Among those arrested were Timothée Mbuya, human rights activist and president of the nongovernmental organization Justicia, as well as members of the youth movement Struggle for Change (LUCHA), journalists, and other peaceful protesters. At least 22 of those arrested have been released.
In Goma, authorities arrested several groups of LUCHA activists at different locations as they were trying to enter the provincial office of the electoral commission to hand over their official complaint. Five of them were granted a meeting with the executive secretary, only to be arrested by intelligence officers upon leaving the office, according to fellow activists.
Authorities used tear gas in Butembo, Goma, and Bukavu to crack down on the peaceful protesters. In Bukavu, security forces fired live bullets and wounded several protesters, witnesses said. Authorities also dispersed protesters in Kisangani. In the cities of Mbuji-Mayi and Kananga in central Congo, the combination of recent arrests, threats, and the deployment of security forces led activists to cancel planned protests.
A total of 13 journalists in Goma, Bukavu, Lubumbashi, and Kinshasa were interrogated, temporarily detained and/or had their material confiscated, according to witnesses, in what has become a very worrying pattern of repression levelled against independent observers in Congo. “The intelligence officers asked me to come with them to their office. They took my camera, saying they will erase my images,” a journalist in Goma told Human Rights Watch. The journalist eventually got her camera back, but the photographs had been deleted.
The coalition of youth movements and human rights organizations that called for the protests—known as the Collective of Civil Society Actions (CASC)—said the protests were meant to show that the “patience of the Congolese people has reached its limit” and that the “misery overwhelming…the population” will only be resolved by the “organization of elections planned for December 2017 and the change in leadership the people are waiting for.”
Congo’s main opposition leaders backed the protests, as did the country’s conference of Catholic bishops, whose secretary general said earlier this month that “only a popular uprising can bring change to Congo.”
Congo’s trade unions have also started to mobilize. On July 21, the collective of public administration trade unions called for an immediate and general strike for all state employees across the country. This was in response to the massive depreciation of the Congolese franc in recent months; state employees are losing out on almost half of their salaries, given that they’re still paid 930 Congolese francs per US dollar, even though the dollar is now valued at around 1700 Congolese francs, according to union representatives. The president of the trade union’s collective later called off the strike when the government agreed to start paying public employees 1425 francs to the dollar, starting in August. But the president of the collective told us the strike will go forward if this commitment isn’t respected.
Three trade unions representing doctors and nurses have gone ahead with the strike though, with their members only carrying out a “minimum service” at hospitals and health centers across the country.
With frustrations already so high across such a broad spectrum of the Congolese population, it’s likely that tensions will only escalate unless there’s a clear sign of political will for President Kabila to step down by the end of the year and allow for a peaceful, democratic transition.
The Family Fortune Behind DR Congo’s President
A 48-page report published last week by the Congo Research Group, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, reveals how President Joseph Kabila’s close family members have amassed a fortune since he became president of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2001, while a new Global Witness report documents how hundreds of millions of dollars paid by mining companies to state bodies in the past few years have “disappeared,” never making it to the national treasury.
These findings might explain Kabila’s refusal to step down from the presidency when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit ended on December 19, 2016. They may also lend insight into why abject poverty and underdevelopment persist in a country extremely well endowed with natural resources.
Congo is Africa’s biggest copper producer and the world’s largest source of cobalt, used to produce batteries for electric cars and other forms of renewable energy. According to Global Witness, up to US$10-billion of copper and cobalt from Congo is sold each year. Despite these riches, 10 out of 100 children in Congo die before they reach the age of 5, and more than 40 percent have stunted growth due to malnutrition. While primary education should be free according to Congolese law, most parents have to pay to send their children to school. Many, especially girls, are kept home or sent to work because their parents cannot afford the fees.
The Congo Research Group report details how Kabila family members own either partially or wholly more than 80 companies and businesses in Congo and abroad. These companies have allegedly made hundreds of millions in revenues since 2003, while assets owned by the family members are “easily worth many tens of millions of dollars.” The report’s findings are based almost exclusively on publicly available documents, including land titles, incorporation documents, mining permits, and shareholder agreements.
The report provides the most detail on the business interests of Kabila himself, his wife, Olive Lembe, his two children, his twin sister Jaynet Kabila Kyungu, and his younger brother Zoé Kabila. Jaynet and Zoé are also members of parliament. Their interests allegedly extend to almost every part of Congo and include farms, banks, telecommunications companies, airlines, hotels, and companies that mine for diamonds, gold, copper, and cobalt. The report states that President Kabila directly and through a company he owns with his children holds more than 71,000 hectares of farmland in Congo. Two companies that belong to the family own diamond permits that extend for more than 700 kilometers along Congo’s border with Angola. Jaynet Kabila owns a stake in the country’s largest mobile phone network. Beyond Congo, the report documents Kabila family real estate holdings in South Africa and Tanzania, and some of the companies the family allegedly owns use addresses abroad, such as in Panama, Niue, and Luxembourg.
The report finds that Kabila family businesses have benefited from large government contracts, such as one for issuing drivers licenses, as well as contracts with the World Bank, the United States Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), and the United Nations. The report questions whether foreign donors and corporations were “sufficiently scrupulous” when they partnered with or supported these companies.
According to the report, some of the family’s business dealings appear to violate Congolese law or codes, while others raise serious questions of conflict of interest. The ministry of mines has granted Jaynet Kabila more mining permits than allowed under the country’s mining code, the report says. Tax payments for many of the mining permits linked to the family have been suspended due to force majeure, with no clear explanation for what “unforeseen events” would have triggered this special status. The report found that some of the family’s business assets are protected by the Republican Guard, the elite presidential security detail, in what appears to be outside the legal mandate of the force.
Last week, Bloomberg news also examined the sprawling business empire of Zoé Kabila, the president’s younger brother. His companies have built roads, sold diamonds, developed a copper project, and done business with a Canadian-based mining company and with Sicomines, the US$3.2 billion copper partnership between Congo and China. This series of reporting follows Bloomberg’s reporting on the family’s fortune last December.
Earlier this month, the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa, working together with journalists from Le Monde and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and the Congolese whistleblower and banker Jean-Jacques Lumumba, alleged that two people close to President Kabila and their companies acquired and refurbished a 72-meter luxury yacht, named the Enigma XK, which is equipped with a helipad and can be chartered for €275,000 a week. The group reported that vessels owned by the same individuals have carried frozen fish and wild animals purchased in Namibia – including giraffes, wildebeests, and zebras – to Congo’s Ferme Espoir, a company owned by Kabila.
The Global Witness report published last Friday alleges that Congo’s national treasury lost more than US$750 million in mining revenues paid to the state-owned mining company Gécamines and national tax agencies between 2013 and 2015. The figure rises to US$1.5 billion when company payments to other government bodies and a former provincial tax agency are included. While it is unclear where most of the money went, the report says that “at least some went to corrupt networks linked to Kabila.” The report documents the role played by Gécamines chairman Albert Yuma, who also heads Congo’s Central Bank’s audit committee and the Congolese business federation (FEC), and who, according to a senior Gécamines executive interviewed by Global Witness, reportedly “only answers to the president.”
Kabila family members and the government have responded critically, if not convincingly, to the various reports. In response to the Bloomberg report, Zoé Kabila wrote on Twitter that, “with a view of harming” Joseph Kabila, “hopeless detractors publish known information while adding lies.” The government’s spokesperson, Lambert Mende, told Radio France Internationale that Zoé and Jaynet Kabila had the right to do business, adding that they only work six months per year as members of parliament. He asked Global Witness and the Congo Research Group to share all their information with the justice system and to the General Inspectorate of Finance. He also said that the government is looking for money in light of the country’s economic crisis, and that it had taken urgent measures since January, including to fight against misappropriations. Congo’s minister for mines, Martin Kabwelulu, said in a press conference that Global Witness had “voluntarily” misinterpreted data published by ITIE-RDC (Initiative pour la transparence des industries extractives) and others. He said the Bloomberg investigation was “a provocation, and false, because all contracts are published on the ministry of mines’ website.”
Family and government claims notwithstanding, these new reports provide important information on where Congo’s natural resource wealth is going, and highlight the need for national policies that would ensure greater transparency and accountability. Congo’s international partners should make sure their investments, loans, or other payments to the government are not inadvertently funding President Kabila’s campaign of repression and violence. Institutions like the World Bank that are mandated to reduce poverty should take additional measures to ensure that projects they fund actually benefit those living in poverty by carrying out rigorous, independent monitoring. The United States and European Union should expand targeted sanctions to Kabila’s family members and close associates who have been misusing funds and abusing power to undermine the democratic process in the country.
Gabriel Tambwe, Detained 14 Months in DR Congo
It’s been 14 months since Congolese activist Gabriel Tambwe Mwidima was arrested and charged with “threatening state security.”
Despite the seriousness of those charges, any threat to state security that Tambwe and 10 other accused supposedly caused has never materialized. Tambwe, director of a nongovernmental organization, Œuvre Spéciale pour les Amis Chrétiens (OSAC), remains in Kinshasa’s central prison awaiting trial. OSAC is a small Christian group that works for the protection of vulnerable groups, including children, and fights against neglected tropical diseases.
“I don’t know my fate,” Tambwe told Human Rights Watch visitors to his prison. “Until now, there hasn’t been any follow-up on my case. My wish is that I be released because I’m innocent.”
His wife struggles with him: “My husband suffers a lot in prison. His parents are no longer alive, and his family is very poor. They don’t have the resources to provide for us. Gabriel is innocent, and I hope that he will be released. I can’t do anything alone.”
Tambwe’s life began to unravel on May 13, 2016, when he was arrested by intelligence agents in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A week before his arrest, on May 4, Congo’s justice minister had announced an investigation into presidential aspirant Moïse Katumbi – President Joseph Kabila’s main rival – for alleged “recruitment of mercenaries, [including] several retired American soldiers.” Tambwe was accused of having facilitated the entry of such “American mercenaries” into Congo. While Tambwe’s organization had invited four United States citizens to Congo on behalf of a partner organization, these individuals were never accused or found to have any links to Katumbi, no evidence emerged regarding the supposed recruitment of mercenaries, and Katumbi was never charged regarding these allegations. Katumbi was later charged and convicted in absentia in an unrelated case that also appeared to be politically motivated.
More than a year later, the 38-year-old father of three remains in prison in Kinshasa. Tambwe was held incommunicado at the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) headquarters for a month before being transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison. The 10 others who were arrested around the same time were also accused of having links to Katumbi.
“While I was at the ANR, they threatened me with death if I refused to denounce Moïse Katumbi,” Tambwe said. “But I didn’t do that.”
Tambwe’s wife described her family’s situation since her husband was arrested:
I live with so many difficulties. Gabriel was the only person to support our family [financially]; I myself don’t work. When he was arrested, our youngest son was still a baby. We’ve had to move because I couldn’t pay the rent anymore. I now stay with Gabriel’s grandmother, in a very little house, in very harsh conditions. Our children get sick all the time and aren’t in school any more.
The Congolese authorities should drop all politically motivated charges and free Tambwe and the 10 others. No one should be detained for over a year merely because of alleged links to a political opposition leader.
Across the Democratic Republic of Congo, dozens of political opposition members and activists are in detention for participating in peaceful demonstrations, speaking out against election delays, criticizing government policies, or for their alleged links to opposition leaders. Many have been held in secret detention without charge or access to family or lawyers. Others have been put on trial on trumped-up charges. Many suffer regular beatings and horrendous living conditions, which have received little international attention
A ‘State of Emergency’ in DR Congo?
About 1:30 p.m. on Friday, July 14, a dozen or so young men sporting red headbands and armed with guns, knives, machetes, and wooden sticks attacked Kinshasa’s bustling main market known as the “Grand Marché.” The assailants burned two police stations near the market before vanishing into the crowd of shoppers and sellers fleeing the commotion. The market’s administrator, 50-year-old Chantal Mboyo, and two police officers were killed.
So unsurprisingly, the day after the attack, Patrick Nkanga, youth league president of the People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), the main party of President Joseph Kabila’s ruling coalition, issued a communiqué calling for additional security measures – “even if” that means imposing a "state of emergency" – to respond to the “terrorist acts” perpetrated in Congo’s central Kasai region and now Kinshasa.
On Monday evening, presidential decrees were read out on state media, announcing new police and military nominations. Among the new appointments: National police commissioner Gen. Charles Bisengimana was replaced by Gen. Dieudonné Amuli Bahigwa, the former deputy chief of staff of the army in charge of operations. This changing of the guard raises questions over whether it signals a further militarization of the police, the security force primarily charged with protecting the population and maintaining public order.
The Kinshasa market attack came a week after the president of the national electoral commission, Corneille Nangaa, announced elections could not be organized before the end of the year, as called for by the Catholic Church-mediated power sharing deal signed late last year, after Kabila’s second and last term, according to the constitution, expired on December 19. Nangaa blamed the delay on violence in the Kasai region, which he said has made voter registration impossible in some areas. More than 3,300 people have been killed and 1.4 million displaced from their homes since violence broke out last August, and as security forces used excessive force to eliminate local militias.
Critics of the government expressed outrage at Nangaa’s announcement. Opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi said Nangaa had “declared war on the Congolese people.” The citizens’ movement LUCHA (Struggle for Change) called for nationwide protests on July 31, the date when the electoral commission was supposed to have finalized the voter roll for elections to be held by the end of 2017. Earlier, the Catholic Church’s bishops’ conference had called on Congolese to “stand up” and protest the government’s failure to organize elections in accordance with the constitution.
The Congolese people have a right under their constitution and international law to hold genuine periodic elections – and to freely express their views about them. These rights cannot be taken away by a state of emergency or other measures that would deprive them of a credible, democratic process.
Free Sephora Bidwaya and 11 Co-detainees
Despite suffering from severe headaches and asthma and being held in “revolting” conditions, activist Sephora Astride Bidwaya remains defiant after more than six months in a Goma prison, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I keep telling myself that, if one day I’m able to serve this country, I will have many ideas about what needs to be fixed,” she told us from Goma’s Munzenze prison. “I will never stop demanding justice for my friends and me.”
Security forces arrested Bidwaya, 25, on December 19, 2016, along with 11 other opposition party members during a peaceful protest against President Joseph Kabila’s decision to stay in power past his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ended that day.
A law graduate from the University of Goma, Bidwaya became politically active at 18, when she joined the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) opposition party and later became the vice-president of the party’s youth wing in Goma, in charge of culture and gender issues.
Bidwaya’s husband, Blaise Mulume Vuninka, told us she had been beaten and detained simply for holding a red card, held by protesters to symbolize that Kabila’s time in power was up.
Bidwaya told us how her health is rapidly deteriorating. She continues to suffer from severe headaches, and several rashes on her head have led to a loss of hair. Bidwaya’s asthma and pain related to her miscarriage in October are making the situation even worse, and she hasn’t gotten the medicine she needs to relieve the pain.
Despite the “revolting” situation at Goma’s Munzenze prison, Bidwaya told us that she’s trying “to stay positive”:
The environment here makes it really difficult to go on, but I need to do the best that I can. Over 40 women are detained here and 14 children. Most of the children suffer from diarrhea. They distribute food to us – just a large bowl of beans – once every other week. Most people here sleep on the floor. The situation is really appalling…We should be released immediately because we haven’t committed any crimes…We were only calling for the respect of the constitution, which is a legitimate thing!
Across the Democratic Republic of Congo, dozens of political opposition members and activists are in detention for participating in peaceful demonstrations, speaking out against election delays, or criticizing government policies. Many have been held in secret detention without charge or access to family or lawyers. Others have been put on trial on trumped-up charges. Many suffer regular beatings and horrendous living conditions, which have received little international attention.
Activist, Lawyer Arbitrarily Detained in Kinshasa
Congolese security forces arrested pro-democracy youth activist Jean-Marie Kalonji and his friend and lawyer, Sylva Mbikayi Kabanga, on June 23, in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They remain in detention at the military intelligence headquarters without charge or access to family or legal counsel.
Kalonji is the coordinator of the pro-democracy movement La Quatrième Voie/Il Est Temps RDC (Fourth Way/It is Time DRC). Soldiers arrested him while he was returning home after visiting his brother’s home in the Bumba military camp in Kinshasa.
A member of Kalonji’s group was on the phone with Kalonji at the time of his arrest and overheard Kalonji’s conversation with the soldiers. The soldiers reportedly told Kalonji he “doesn’t like Congo.” To which Kalonji replied he worked “for the good” of the country. He told the soldiers he was a member of La Quatrième Voie and explained the movement’s objectives.
The soldiers took him to an office in the camp. Kalonji’s lawyer, Mbikayi, arrived at the camp as soon as he was alerted by the colleague Kalonji had been on the phone with. But instead of letting Mbikayi assist his client, soldiers arrested him, and confiscated their belongings and cash. The two were then taken to the military intelligence headquarters.
A relative of Mbikayi was prevented from bringing him food. In Congo, detainees often only eat if family members bring food to the prison. “I’m really stunned,” Mbikayi’s family member said. “I don’t know how this country is ruled. How can you arrest a lawyer who comes to help a person? There’s no justice in this country.”
This isn’t the first time Kalonji has been arbitrarily detained. On December 15, 2015, Kalonji was arrested and detained by the intelligence agency in Kinshasa for 132 days, without charge or access to family or a lawyer. He was eventually transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison, where he remained until his release on August 27, 2016.
Congolese authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Kalonji and Mbikayi or charge them with a credible offense. Pro-democracy activists and lawyers should be able to work freely and express peaceful opinions without fear of arrest.
Meanwhile, in Goma, four artists arrested on June 23 have been released. Benoit Mugabo, Benito Mupenzi, Precy Numbi, and Cruzz Taylor had organized an artistic demonstration to protest the killings across the central Kasai region and in Beni in North Kivu province. Covered in fake blood, they lay on the side of the road, bearing crosses for the thousands killed. Police arrested them, accused them of inciting disobedience and rebellion, and sent them to prison.
A video shows the artists in handcuffs, shortly after their arrest, surrounded by police officers and bystanders. Mugabo, a photographer, asserts, “Look at what’s done to those who speak out! Look at the handcuffs!” Turning to a police officer, he adds, “You have handcuffs here to come arrest me. Go and arrest those who kill students in Beni!” – referring to a mortar attack the previous day in a building where exams were being held, which wounded five students. At least 700 people, and possibly many more, have been killed in Beni territory since October 2014.
Catholic Bishops Call on Congolese to ‘Stand Up’
Religious leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo have expressed concern that the country is in a “very bad state” and called on Congolese to “stand up” and “take [their] destiny into [their] own hands.”
The dire warning came in a statement on Friday from the 49 archbishops and bishops of Congo’s influential national Episcopal conference (CENCO) after a week-long meeting in the capital, Kinshasa.
The church leaders painted a somber picture of the country’s challenges: The economic crisis is worsening “by the day,” leading to an “explosion” of unemployed youth and making families struggle to make ends meet. They decried the “almost generalized insecurity,” from the horrific violence in the central Kasai region to the presence of foreign armed groups, clashes between government security forces and armed groups, inter-ethnic violence, kidnappings, abductions, and “apparently planned” prison breaks across the country. The bishops said restrictions on free expression and peaceful demonstrations have only increased, and that “instead of confidence building measures,” we have instead seen a “hardening” of those in power.
The bishops blamed the dizzying array of challenges largely on the failure to hold elections in accordance with the constitution. They said it was “unacceptable” that a minority of Congolese people had “decided to take hostage the lives of millions” of others.
They reiterated their call for all signatories to respect and fully implement the New Year’s Eve agreement, which was mediated by CENCO and signed on December 31, 2016. The deal included clear commitments to hold elections by the end of 2017 and that President Joseph Kabila would not be a candidate or amend the constitution. The deal also provided for the main opposition coalition to lead the transitional government as well as a national oversight council, and measures would be taken to open political space. These commitments have largely been ignored, and as a result, CENCO withdrew from its mediation role in late March.
The bishops also called for the establishment of a “serious and objective” investigation in the Kasai region. The United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Friday directing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to send a team of independent international experts to investigate alleged human rights violations and abuses in Congo’s central region. The resolution’s full implementation will be critical for ensuring justice.
Read CENCO’s full statement here (in French).
Hope for Justice in the Kasai Region
It also remains to be seen who will ultimately deliver justice for the victims. Given the scale of the abuses and serious doubts about the Congolese courts’ ability or willingness to ensure justice in this context, we’ve urged the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to consider investigating the crimes committed in the Kasai region.
Read Human Rights Watch’s full news release on the council’s resolution here.
Meanwhile, police arrested four artists – Benoit Mugabo, Benito Mupenzi, Precy Numbi, and Cruzz Taylor – in the eastern city of Goma yesterday morning while they were staging a peaceful, artistic demonstration to protest the killings across the Kasai region and in Beni in North Kivu province. Covered in fake blood, they lay on the side of the road, bearing crosses for the thousands of victims killed. A prosecutor at Goma’s High Court questioned them and they were still detained at the mayor’s office at the time of writing.
Congolese Authorities Refuse to Renew Accreditation of French Journalist
Radio France Internationale (RFI) announced on Thursday that the Congolese authorities had not renewed the accreditation of its correspondent Sonia Rolley.
This is just the latest incident in the Congolese government’s crackdown on media and freedom of expression.
Having worked on Congo for the past 13 years, Rolley has developed a significant following and is well-known and widely respected across the region. The French journalist has extensively covered Congo’s political crisis in recent months and recently authored a detailed investigation into the violence in Congo’s central Kasai region. The non-renewal of Rolley’s accreditation is yet another indication that Congolese authorities want to hide the truth about massacres and other abuses in the Kasais.
Meanwhile, the signal for RFI has been blocked in Kinshasa for over seven months, denying many Congolese access to a vital source of information. At least five media outlets close to the opposition remain barred, despite the “confidence-building measures” included in the so-called New Year’s Eve agreement.
Over the last two and a half years, the government has broadened its suppression of criticism by forcing international officials and human rights monitors to leave Congo. In October 2014, the government expelled the director of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in Congo, Scott Campbell, after his office published a report about summary executions and enforced disappearances during a police operation in Kinshasa. The director of the Congo Research Group, Jason Stearns, was forced to leave in April 2016, following his organization’s report on massacres in the Beni region of eastern Congo. In July, the authorities forced two researchers from the international organization Global Witness to leave Congo while they were investigating logging practices. And in August, the government blocked my colleague Ida Sawyer from continuing to work in the country – forcing her to move away from Congo after having lived and worked in the country for over eight years.
Repression, Violence Amid Pressure for Peaceful, Democratic Transition in DR Congo
More than six months after President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit ended in December, credible democratic elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo are still nowhere in sight.
Contrary to the main tenets of the so-called New Year’s Eve agreement – which sets out how a transition would be managed until elections are held before the end of December 2017 – Kabila’s ruling coalition has appointed a new government that excludes members of the main opposition coalition, the oversight council has yet to be appointed, there is still no electoral calendar, and the “confidence building measures” outlined in the agreement have not been implemented. Meanwhile, government repression continues against those calling for timely elections. Kabila himself said in a recent interview he had made no promises, refusing to rule out the possibility of a third term or make a clear commitment on when elections will be held.
In June, security forces arrested or forcibly disappeared at least seven members of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) political party, while the opposition members were attempting to mobilize people to register to vote. All seven have been held in incommunicado detention without charge and with no access to family or lawyers. The apparent strategy to prevent opposition members from participating in the democratic process raises serious doubts about the government’s willingness to hold transparent and fair elections.
For several months, Congo’s international and regional partners gave Congolese authorities the benefit of the doubt – easing up the pressure while hoping the New Year’s Eve agreement would be implemented. Now they are once again sounding the alarm.
The European Union and United States imposed new targeted sanctions against top Congolese officials on May 29 and June 1, sending a clear message there are consequences for the ongoing repression and election delays. The US sanctions showed that Kabila does not have the unconditional support from the new Trump administration that many Congolese officials were hoping for, while the European sanctions went higher up the chain of command than earlier sanctions.
The European Parliament also weighed in with a new resolution on June 14, denouncing the “continuous cycles of conflict and brutal political repression” and strongly regretting “the delays in organizing the next presidential and legislative elections” in Congo and the “lack of progress” in implementing the New Year’s Eve agreement. The parliament called “for further investigations of, and sanctions to be extended against, the persons responsible, at the highest level of government, for the violence and crimes” committed in Congo.
After a complaint and request for physical protection filed on June 2 by Congo’s self-exiled opposition leader and Kabila’s main rival, Moïse Katumbi, a letter was made public on June 16, in which the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights calls on the Congolese government to take all necessary measures to ensure that Katumbi can “return to Congo” and “participate freely and in complete safety, as a candidate, in the presidential elections,” which includes protecting him from arbitrary arrest or detention. After initially bringing charges against Katumbi for alleged recruitment of mercenaries, a court in Lubumbashi convicted him in absentia in June 2016 for forgery regarding a real estate deal many years earlier and sentenced him to three years in prison. Congo’s Catholic bishops have denounced the judicial proceedings as “nothing but farces.” This week Congo’s justice minister presented a possible new roadblock for Katumbi, saying that, if there’s evidence that he has dual nationality, he could not be a candidate in presidential elections.
African leaders have also taken a stand. On June 15, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and nine former African presidents launched an “urgent appeal” to President Kabila and other Congolese leaders for a peaceful, democratic transition. They warned that the future of the country is in “grave danger” in light of its political situation in, “which represents a threat to the stability, prosperity and peace of the Great Lakes region, and indeed for Africa as a whole.”
Officials from Congo’s powerful southwestern neighbor Angola also appear increasingly concerned about Kabila’s inability to resolve the crises facing the country, including horrific levels of violence in Congo’s central Kasai region that forced more than 30,000 people to flee across the border into Angola.
In what many viewed as a sign that Congolese officials are not ‘protected’ and can be held accountable for past crimes, media reported recently that a Belgian court has opened an investigation into the role of Congo’s current justice minister, Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, in the shooting down of a civilian jetliner in 1998.
Thambwe was already facing the heat, with many activists in Congo calling for his resignation after a series of prison breaks across the country. Five prisons have been attacked and more than 5,000 prisoners escaped in recent weeks, fueling insecurity and setting justice efforts back for years. On May 17, unknown assailants launched a large-scale, coordinated attack on the central prison in the capital, Kinshasa, allowing at least 4,000 prisoners to flee under mysterious circumstances. Two days later, 14 prisoners escaped in Kalemie, Tanganyika province, while another 68 reportedly broke free in Kasangulu in Kongo Central province. On June 10, assailants attacked the prosecutor’s office and a police prison in Matete, Kinshasa, setting 17 prisoners free. This incident was followed by a massive prison break the next day in Beni, North Kivu province, where more than 930 prisoners escaped. Early on June 19, shots were fired close to the prison in the town of Butembo, also in North Kivu province.
The Congolese government has also been under pressure to accept an independent international investigation into alleged abuses in the Kasai region of central Congo by the Congolese army and militia groups. More than 3,300 people have been killed in the region since last August, according to the Catholic Church, while over 600 schools have been attacked or destroyed and more than 1.3 million people have been forced to flee their homes.
The renewed pressure on the government will only be effective if it is sustained, targeted, and well-coordinated at the national, regional, and international levels. This is needed to stop the escalation of violence, repression, and instability across the country and get progress toward a peaceful, democratic transition back on track.
Sephora, Beaten, Jailed for Holding a Red Card
Across the Democratic Republic of Congo, scores of political opposition members and activists are in detention for participating in peaceful demonstrations, speaking out against election delays, or criticizing government policies. Many are held in secret detention without charge or access to family or lawyers. Others have been put on trial on trumped-up charges. Many suffer regular beatings and horrendous living conditions, which go largely unnoticed by the outside world.
In a new series, Human Rights Watch interviews detainees, and asks family members about their loved ones behind bars, showing us the personal tragedy of arbitrary arrest and detention and the tremendous impact on family and friends.
Sephora Astride Bidwaya is a 25-year-old political activist who has been in prison in the eastern city of Goma for over five months. A law graduate from the University of Goma, Sephora became politically active at 18, when she joined the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) opposition party and later became the vice-president of the party’s youth wing in Goma, in charge of culture and gender issues. Security forces arrested her on December 19, 2016, with 11 other opposition party members, during a peaceful protest against President Joseph Kabila’s decision to stay in power past his constitutionally-mandated two-term limit, which ended that day.
Bidwaya’s husband, Blaise Mulume Vuninka, told Human Rights Watch about the day his wife was arrested:
On December 19, I was arrested at work. I had no idea why I was being detained. Only three days later, I was informed that my wife had also been arrested on December 19 for carrying a red card [waved by protesters as a symbol that Kabila’s time in power was up]. They told me I was also arrested because of my wife’s political work. Then on December 26, they finally released me.
Once out of detention, Vuninka was informed that the police transferred his wife from the police holding cell to the prosecutor’s office in Goma:
Three police officers dragged my wife by her pants. They kicked her with their boots in her stomach and back. To force her into the van, they almost threw her in. While the others beat her, a colonel insulted her, saying: “You go there [to the UDPS] to find yourself men. You’re a dirty whore! You’ll get what you deserve and regret that you went out on the street that day [to protest].” I think that these beatings are the main cause for all her current health issues. When I think about it, it brings tears to my eyes.
Bidwaya was later transferred to Munzenze central prison in Goma, where she is still detained. Vuninka described his wife’s worsening health conditions:
Two months before she was arrested, Sephora had to have surgery and we lost our first baby. Her wounds had not yet healed by the time she was arrested, and the beatings caused her intense pain. She also suffers from asthma. In prison, she still faints sometimes. Just on the night of May 17, she fainted five times. … She has to sleep on the ground. She doesn’t have drinking water, and the toilets are dirty.
Bidwaya and the other 11 detained protesters were charged with “insulting the head of state,” but the trial has yet to start because of contested procedural issues.
I am asking myself when this will end. I need my wife. The only thing she did was to hold a little red card and walk down the street with the others. She doesn’t deserve to go through all this because of such a small thing.
During a meeting in Kinshasa with activists from the youth movement LUCHA (Struggle for Change) on May 25, Congo’s human rights minister, Marie Ange Mushobekwa, said that Bidwaya would soon be released. Let’s hope she’s right.
Nationwide Poll Warns of a Gloomy Future for DR Congo
The vast majority of Congolese people questioned in a new poll believe their country is going in the wrong direction and are expecting more strife in the coming months.
The poll by the New York University-based Congo Research Group and a Congolese polling agency, the Bureau d’Études, de Recherches, et Consulting International (BERCI), found that 77 percent of the 2,301 people surveyed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in February and April 2017 shared that gloomy outlook.
Other results included:
- 69 percent said President Joseph Kabila should have resigned at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit on December 19, 2016;
- 83 percent support the political agreement struck on December 31 to overcome the country’s political impasse;
- The Catholic Church, which mediated the deal, enjoys an 84 percent approval rating;
- In February, 72 percent of respondents blamed the political impasse on Kabila’s ruling coalition, while 27 percent blamed the Rassemblement opposition coalition.
The New Year’s Eve agreement includes a commitment that presidential elections will be held by the end of 2017, and no attempts would be made to hold a referendum or change the constitution to allow the president to run for a third term.
Since the agreement was signed, members of the ruling coalition have repeatedly invoked the possibility of holding a referendum. Soon after the deal was signed, senior officials from Kabila’s ruling coalition said they had signed the agreement “with reservations,” and some asserted the agreement wasn’t constitutional because it explicitly prevents a referendum to change the constitution. In late January, an anonymous source close to Kabila told Jeune Afrique that the “hypothesis [of a referendum] has to be seriously discussed.” On April 16, the North Kivu provincial president of the moderate opposition party Union of Nationalists (UNANA) called for the holding of a referendum instead of elections by the end of the year, in light of budgetary constraints.
Most recently, on May 13, 2017, the ruling coalition’s spokesperson André Alain Atundu called on the country’s political class not to take away the “right [of the Congolese people] to express themselves through a referendum,” following a meeting of the coalition in Kinshasa. In recent weeks, Télé 50, a pro-government television station, has been showing advertisements with images of violence in several African countries, including Congo, juxtaposed by images of seemingly peaceful referenda in neighboring Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The narrator states that people in these countries “privileged their homelands.”
The poll also found that the youth movement Struggle for Change (LUCHA) enjoys a 65 percent approval rating, as government repression against the group continues. On May 15, four LUCHA members were arrested in front of the office of the electoral commission (CENI) in Mbuji-Mayi, Kasai Oriental province, during a peaceful protest calling for publication of the electoral calendar. They were released on May 21. Fourteen members of another youth movement, Collectif 2016, were arrested on May 17, while protesting bad road conditions in their neighborhood in Kinshasa. Thirteen were released two days later, while one of the activists, Rossy Mukendi, is still being held at a military intelligence detention center in Kinshasa, without access to his family or lawyer.
A large majority – 72 percent – of all survey respondents said they approved of the targeted sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union against senior government and security force officials last year. The EU and US are discussing new sanctions, which might be announced in the coming days or weeks.
The CRG/BERCI poll provides a rare and insightful glimpse into Congolese public opinion. The poll suggests that there would be strong public support for salvaging the New Year’s Eve deal and ensuring the organization of credible presidential elections by year’s end, while there might be considerable opposition to a referendum process to change the constitution.
Strong Action Needed to Salvage DR Congo Elections Deal
The prospect of democratic elections by year’s end in the Democratic Republic of Congo seems to be moving further and further away, as the terms of a deal laying the groundwork for a vote are largely ignored.
Congo’s ruling coalition is not only defying key tenets of the New Year’s Eve agreement, but government forces are meting out unchecked political repression and large-scale human rights abuses. The lack of implementation of the deal is starting to seem like yet another delaying tactic to keep President Joseph Kabila in power. Strong actions, including new targeted sanctions, are urgently needed to renew the pressure and try to get the deal back on track.
Small Protests Falter in Face of Repression in DR Congo
Security forces fired teargas and arrested over 80 people to break up or prevent small demonstrations across the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday. Opposition parties had called for protests against the failed implementation of the New Year’s Eve agreement, a power-sharing deal mediated by the Catholic Church last year after President Joseph Kabila refused to step down from power at the end of his two-term limit.
Yesterday in the capital, Kinshasa, daily life came to a near stand-still in the morning with many shops closed and roads largely empty. Small groups of people attempted to protest in Kalamu, Kimbanseke, Lemba, Limete, Masina, Matete, Ndjili, and Ngaliema neighborhoods, but they were quickly dispersed by security forces, who in some cases fired teargas on groups of protesters. Some protesters in turn threw rocks at the police. At least 40 people were arrested across Kinshasa, around a dozen of whom were released by the end of the day.
Security forces arrested at least 12 people in Bukavu; 10 in Kindu; 10 in Lubumbashi; seven in Kongolo; five in Mbuji-Mayi, and four in Kamina. Forces also beat protesters in Kamina, wounding at least six people. Small protests in Bunia and Mbandaka were dispersed without any arrests reported. In Beni and Kananga, opposition parties decided against a protest and instead called for a ville morte – literally a “dead city.” Numerous shops remained closed, and many people stayed home. Local activists reported unusually high numbers of security forces deployed in other cities, including in Kananga, Kisangani, Bandundu, and Kikwit.
The national police spokesperson, Col. Pierrot Mwanamputu, said on Sunday that “the police will prevent all non-authorized and politically motivated demonstrations across the territory.” Congolese authorities have repeatedly declared unjustified bans on political protests led by the opposition, further shrinking the country’s democratic space.
The relatively low turnout during yesterday’s protests seems to have been due in part to the fear of government repression, as well as the fatigue of protesting with little tangible results. Scores of people were killed during political protests last September and December. Pro-democracy youth activists and others say yesterday’s protests could have been bigger if it were about telling Kabila he needs to step down, but people aren’t willing to risk their lives about a fight over posts in a transitional government.
On Friday, Kabila nominated Bruno Tshibala, a former opposition leader, to be the new prime minister. Tshibala had been dismissed from the main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), in early March. Many viewed his appointment as a violation of the New Year’s Eve agreement, which calls for the prime minister during the transition to be chosen by the Rassemblement opposition coalition. The European Union, Belgium, and France all raised concerns about his appointment and called for full implementation of the December deal. The EU also warned that they stand ready to impose additional targeted sanctions against those responsible for serious human rights abuses.
US Conflict Minerals Rule Should Be Refined, Not Revoked
The United States may no longer require companies to disclose sources for gold and other potential “conflict minerals” – a move with potentially dire consequences for mineral-rich Democratic Republic of Congo.
Michael Piwowar, the acting chairman of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), took expansive action on Friday to suspend enforcement of the auditing requirements linked to Dodd-Frank Section 1502. While it is unclear whether Piwowar could unilaterally make this move, it could effectively suspend enforcement of an important rule requiring companies to disclose sources for minerals they use, a critical step taken to combat the trade in conflict minerals that enrich abusive armed groups. In February, the Trump administration had threatened to suspend or revoke the rule entirely.
A Silent Protest Across DR Congo Over Failed Political Deal
In Kinshasa and cities across the Democratic Republic of Congo yesterday, many people stayed home from work and classes. Shops and markets were closed or opened late, and streets were largely quiet.
The shutdown came following the opposition’s call for “villes mortes” – literally “dead cities” – to protest the failed implementation of the New Year’s Eve agreement, the Catholic Church-mediated power-sharing deal that helped defuse an explosive situation late last year. The deal allows President Joseph Kabila to stay in power beyond his constitutionally mandated two-term limit that ended on December 19, 2016, until elections are held before the end of 2017.
Congo’s conference of Catholic bishops, CENCO, announced on March 27, 2017, that they were withdrawing from their mediation role due to the impasse over the implementation of the deal. The ruling majority coalition has refused to accept the opposition’s choice of Felix Tshisekedi for prime minister, insisting the Rassemblement opposition coalition submit at least three names, one of whom Kabila will nominate as prime minister. The majority has also rejected the Rassemblement’s designation of Pierre Lumbi to replace the late Etienne Tshisekedi as president of the Rassemblement’s Conseil des Sages, which should in turn make him the president of the national follow-up council for implementation of the deal and the organization of elections (CNSA).
In announcing they were stepping aside, the Catholic bishops called for Kabila to take responsibility and engage personally to ensure swift implementation of the deal. They also called on the international community to provide greater support, and on the Congolese people to remain “vigilant.”
The next day, March 28, tensions were high in Kinshasa and several other cities, as groups of people went to the streets, burning tires or chanting songs against the Kabila government, to protest the failure of the deal and call on Kabila to leave office.
At day’s end, Jean Marc Kabund, the secretary general of the main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), told a large crowd in Kinshasa that the country was “at an impasse” and called for “acts of peaceful resistance,” including a nationwide march on April 10 to protest the failure to implement the deal. After supporters cried out for more immediate action, police arrived and fired teargas to disperse the crowd.
On March 29, the Rassemblement opposition coalition, which includes the UDPS, published a declaration calling the agreement “broken.” They urged all Congolese to respect yesterday’s ville morte, support a “general strike” on April 5, and participate in the April 10 march, as well as subsequent demonstrations to demand the New Year’s Eve deal be implemented.
Kabila reportedly told the bishops in a meeting on March 28 that he would get involved personally to find a solution to the political standoff. The presidency announced that Kabila would be meeting with concerned parties this week, but the Rassemblement already said it would not take part. Kabila is expected to address parliament in the coming days.
This political maneuvering has taken place in the context of increasing public outrage over the violence in the Kasai region in central Congo, where the death toll continues to rise. The still-unexplained deaths of United Nations experts Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalán, whose bodies were found last week, the continued disappearance of their four Congolese colleagues, and new reports of soldiers summarily executing youth while conducting door-to-door operations in Kananga city, highlight the need for an international, independent investigation into the violence in the region.
Congo’s international partners should take strong action – including further targeted sanctions from the UN, European Union, and United States – and increase the pressure on Kabila and his government. Many Congolese are losing all hope that the New Year’s Eve deal can be salvaged and a peaceful, democratic transition achieved.
SADC Should Press to Resolve the DR Congo Crisis
This Saturday, Southern African Development Community (SADC) heads of state and government will meet in Swaziland. The subregional organization, which includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, should use this meeting to help resolve the political and human rights crisis in Congo.
On February 24, SADC foreign ministers called for the urgent nomination of a new prime minister in Congo and for a rapid application of the New Year’s Eve deal. With the appointment of the new government and implementation of the deal still largely stalled, regional heads of state and government should reiterate this call strongly and clearly.
They should also call on the Congolese authorities to quickly and fully implement the confidence-building measures agreed upon in the deal. Those include releasing and dropping charges against political leaders and activists targeted because of their peaceful political views or activities and opening barred media outlets.
On February 22, Congo’s Roman Catholic bishops warned that the political deadlock coupled with the escalation of conflict in parts of Congo could “plunge [the] country into an uncontrollable chaos.” Violence has intensified across the country in recent months, leaving several hundred people dead, including in the Kasai provinces, Tanganyika, North Kivu, and Kongo Central, as well as in the capital, Kinshasa. “Is it only by accident that this [intensified violence] occurs in this pre-electoral period?” the bishops said, adding that they feared “a design with the aim of delaying or preventing” elections.
On February 25, the United Nations Security Council called on all stakeholders in Congo “to redouble, in good faith, their efforts towards a speedy conclusion of the ongoing talks on the ‘arrangements particuliers’ of the agreement.”
The United States, which played a major role in pressing for elections and defending human rights during the Obama administration, has been rather silent on Congo under President Donald Trump. The US could, and should, be doing more, including a new round of targeted sanctions against abusive officials. As the Washington Post recently put it, “another explosion of bloodshed in Central Africa” is “something that even an ‘America First’ president should want to stop.”
The European Union, meanwhile, made a strong call for urgent implementation of the New Year’s Eve deal in its March 6 foreign affairs council conclusions on Congo. Foreign ministers also instructed High Representative Federica Mogherini to start the process for new targeted sanctions, looking at “those responsible for serious human rights violations or for incitement to violence and those who would obstruct a consensual and peaceful solution to the crisis.”
It is time for regional leaders to take a stand. Their engagement last year played a role in pressing President Joseph Kabila and others to accept the Catholic Church-mediated agreement. But continued, high-level engagement is needed to ensure that the agreement holds and that credible elections are organized, and to prevent an already explosive situation in Congo from deteriorating even further.
DR Congo: EU Should Impose Additional Targeted Sanctions
The European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council is due to discuss the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 6. Given the continuing political repression, lack of accountability for past abuses, and large-scale violence that has broken out in many parts of the country, the EU should use this meeting to impose additional targeted sanctions – including travel bans and asset freezes – against those found to be most responsible for serious human rights violations.
Congo’s Amani Festival Should be a Safe Space for Peaceful Expression
Last weekend, tens of thousands of people came together and reveled in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern city of Goma for the Amani Festival, a three-day outdoor concert. Now in its fourth year, the music festival tapped into the city’s rich cultural life. It featured a line-up of national and international stars who performed amidst exhibits and workshops set up by local businesses, human rights groups, humanitarian agencies, and embassies. In a region plagued by conflict for the past 20 years, the festival offers a rare reprieve.
Yet the festival’s main slogans – “playing for change” and “singing for peace” – seemed to be undermined when police took signs away from members of the youth movement Struggle for Change (LUCHA), and when the festival’s organizers later told them to stop chanting. The young activists were calling for peace in Beni, Tanganyika, and Kasai Central – conflict-ridden areas in Congo where hundreds of people have been killed in recent months. They were also calling for the release of their colleague Fabrice Mutsiirwa, who was arrested during a peaceful protest in Goma on December 19, the last day of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit. Over the past two years, dozens of other LUCHA activists have been arrested and detained for participating in similar peaceful activities.
After the police took their signs away on Sunday, the LUCHA activists held hands and danced together in a circle opposite a closed-off area for VIPs, including North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku. The activists chanted that Paluku and other political leaders were staying in power past the constitutional limits. While the message was strong, their dance was festive and non-confrontational.
Paluku was seated next to the provincial police chief Vital Awashango and Goma’s mayor, Dieudonné Malere. The three have been among the principal enforcers of widespread political repression in the city over the past two years.
After several minutes, in an incident filmed by Human Rights Watch, one of the Amani Festival organizers approached the activists and told them to stop chanting, saying that they risked ruining the festival. In what has now become the LUCHA activists’ typical response to repression, they initially refused to leave and crouched down on the dusty ground for a moment of silence. They dispersed moments later, without disrupting the festival. An Amani organizer later told us that LUCHA is a “political” movement that could cause “trouble.” He said the festival is meant to promote “reconciliation” and has “no space for a political movement.”
While seemingly insignificant in the context of the broader repression in the country, the Amani Festival incident reinforced the notion that these young activists are but troublemakers – false allegations that authorities have used repeatedly in their attempts to quash dissent.
If the Amani Festival is committed to bringing change and peace to eastern Congo, then it should also be a safe space for youth activists to express themselves freely and peacefully. With their commitment to civic engagement, human rights, and democratic principles, they could be the change-makers for the country’s future. Their voices should not be silenced.
Congo Voter Registration Hampered by Insecurity, Logistical Challenges
As negotiations continue in the Democratic Republic of Congo on implementing the political deal paving the way for elections before the end of the year, the national electoral commission (CENI) has forged ahead with its voter registration process.
Instead of just registering the youth who came of age since the last elections in 2011 and members of the diaspora now allowed to vote, CENI decided to start from scratch and redo the entire voter list – ostensibly to “clean up” the voter rolls, and address allegations of fraud. But some see this as a government tactic to delay elections once again.
Insecurity has also affected the registration process in Walendu Bindi in Ituri province; Beni, Bwito and Walikale in North Kivu province; Kabare and Shabunda in South Kivu province; and Nyunzu in Tanganyika province.
CENI officials face numerous logistical and resource challenges. In Milimba village in Fizi territory, officials do not have the equipment to laminate voter identification cards. In Kibombo in Maniema province and Sandoa in Lualaba province, there have been problems maintaining generators needed for electricity at the registration sites, while materials were reportedly stolen in Kabara and Kaniola villages in Walungu, South Kivu. In Fizi town, a registration center was shut down due to the lack of registration materials.
Many activists we have spoken to have expressed concerns about the limited number of registration centers to cover vast territories – often in remote, insecure areas with poor roads and transportation options. People living in Vurondo, Beni territory, for example, need to walk nearly 20 kilometers to reach the closest registration center in Butuhe village, exposing themselves to roadblocks and other protection risks along the way. In the Mpati area in Masisi territory, there is only one registration machine for thousands of people.
Further south in Haut Katanga province and in the western Equateur province, people have complained that CENI officials do not have the necessary training or skills to competently carry out the voter registration process. Logistical and administrative problems were also reported in Sub-Ubangi and Mongala provinces in western Congo. In parts of Kalehe territory, South Kivu, there have been reports that CENI only hired members of one ethnic community and discriminated against members of other ethnic groups.
Activists in many parts of the country say limited efforts have been made to inform the population about the registration process. In Bukavu, the provincial capital of South Kivu, observers worry about a lack of participation of women in particular. In Ituri province, many people have reportedly deliberately abstained from participating in what they believe is an illegitimate process.
In Misisi, Fizi, CENI agents have reportedly asked for 2,000 Congolese Francs (about US$2) per person to obtain a registration card; similar reports have come in from parts of Ituri and Haut-Katanga provinces. It is unlawful to charge people to register. In some places in Masisi, there have been reports of people bribing CENI agents to register several times. CENI officials have also complained that they are not being adequately paid in Beni territory, or that they are working in precarious conditions without sufficient protection in parts of Rutshuru, North Kivu.
Having a credible voter list and ensuring all eligible voters are given equal and fair opportunities to register will be critical to ensuring the legitimacy of any future elections. The Congolese government, along with international partners, should act now to improve the registration process, including by working to secure voter registration sites and providing adequate staffing and equipment to effectively register all eligible voters. Real political will to make this process a success is perhaps the most important ingredient.
Congolese Mourn Death of Prominent Opposition Leader
Hundreds of Congolese gathered in Kinshasa’s Limete neighborhood after news broke last night that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s long-time opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi passed away on Wednesday in Brussels. He had left Congo last week for medical treatment.
Police deployed to control the crowds outside Tshisekedi’s home and the headquarters of his party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). Things grew tense, with protesters throwing rocks and shouting slurs against President Joseph Kabila; police responded with rounds of teargas. But grief and sadness were also palpable. Many of those gathered were in tears, others wrote messages for Tshisekedi’s family in a book of condolences; some wondered aloud what Tshisekedi’s death meant for the ongoing Catholic Church-mediated dialogue and Tshisekedi’s struggle for democracy and the rule of law in Congo. Congolese leaders and citizens of all political stripes, as well as foreign dignitaries paid tribute to Tshisekedi.
Known as the “Sphinx of Limete,” Tshisekedi had become a symbol of peaceful resistance and fighter in the struggle for democracy in Congo. He was one of the rare Congolese politicians who had consistently been on the side of the opposition for the past three decades, leading peaceful resistance first against the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko before taking on President Laurent Kabila and then his son and the current president, Joseph Kabila. Following the 2011 presidential elections, marred by allegations of widespread fraud and brutal repression, many Congolese believed that Tshisekedi was the real winner even though the official results put him in second place with 32 per cent of the vote. Tshisekedi never officially recognized Kabila’s victory.
Tshisekedi was also one of the few – if not the only – Congolese political leaders who could mobilize people to the streets. When he returned to Kinshasa last July, following two years abroad for medical treatment, hundreds of thousands gathered to catch a glimpse of him and hear him speak. Despite his age and deteriorating health, it’s largely thanks to Tshisekedi’s leadership and his willingness to ally with others that the opposition remained somewhat, and unusually, united in their 2016 struggle to resist attempts by Joseph Kabila to extend his presidency beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ended on December 19, 2016.
The Catholic Church-mediated dialogue late last year gained its legitimacy in large part due to Tshisekedi’s blessing and the participation of his UDPS political party and the Rassemblement opposition coalition he presided over. This led to the signing of a deal on New Year’s Eve, which defused a potentially explosive situation and ostensibly set the country on the path toward elections in December 2017 and the country’s first democratic transition of power. But implementation of the deal has been painfully slow, raising doubts whether Kabila and those loyal to him are really committed to organizing elections.
Tshisekedi was due to lead a council to oversee implementation of the deal and the organization of elections. It’s now hard to imagine who will fill this void, and it remains to be seen whether the opposition will be able to maintain enough unity and legitimacy to see the deal through and maintain the pressure on Kabila.
Congo’s political leaders would perhaps pay the best homage to Etienne Tshisekedi by putting the interests of the country first and working together to fulfill his long-time dream of a truly peaceful and democratic political transition.
One Month On, Little Progress Implementing DR Congo Elections Deal
UN Reports Dramatic Increase in DR Congo Rights Violations in 2016
Human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo surged by 30 percent in 2016, spurred largely by a violent crackdown on protesters by state agents, according to a new United Nations report.
In a report published this week, the UN joint human rights office documented a total of 5,190 human rights violations across Congo, an increase tied to election-related repression and increased activities of several armed groups.
State agents – particularly the national police – were responsible for almost 64 percent of all human rights violations documented in 2016, while armed groups were responsible for the remaining 36 percent. The number of violations committed by state agents jumped by more than 62 percent compared to 2015.
The UN documented a total of 480 victims of extrajudicial killings by state agents, an increase of 63 percent compared to 2015. Many of these victims were shot dead by security forces during the violent crackdown on protests against efforts to extend President Joseph Kabila’s stay in power beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit on December 19, 2016.
The number of violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms linked to the shrinking of democratic space in 2016 was more than four times higher than the total number of such violations documented in 2015, with the rights to public assembly, opinion, and expression at serious risk. Numerous media outlets and journalists were targeted and abused by government agents, while political opponents were prosecuted in politically motivated trials. The government also failed to mount credible investigations into documented violations, according to the report.
While the majority (66 percent) of all human rights violations documented occurred in the eastern part of the country, there was a notable increase in violations documented in the southern and western provinces, including due to the political repression across the country, the resurgence of inter-ethnic fighting between Twa and Luba in Tanganyika, and fighting between security forces and the Kamuina Nsapu militia in the Kasai provinces.
Doubts Surround Implementation of New Year’s Eve Deal
Nearly two weeks after a major political agreement was reached in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are more questions than answers regarding how the deal will be implemented, whether there’s real political will on the part of President Joseph Kabila and other political leaders to implement the accord, and whether we’ll see a real reversal of the climate of repression.
Soon after the deal was signed, senior officials from Kabila’s ruling coalition said they had signed the agreement “with reservations,” particularly regarding the need for greater inclusivity. Some also asserted the agreement wasn’t constitutional because it explicitly prevents a referendum to change the constitution. That has raised concerns about whether Kabila is really committed to leaving power, the core issue at the heart of the political crisis. And while Kabila reportedly told the Catholic bishops he is committed to implementation of the deal, he has yet to make a public declaration or sign the agreement himself.
The new prime minister, Samy Badibanga, and several other members of the new government appointed on December 18, as well as the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) opposition party, also haven’t signed on.
A new prime minister from the opposition Rassemblement coalition, as called for in the agreement, has yet to be appointed, and it seems there has been little progress toward reaching an agreement on the timetable for implementation of the deal and details on how the follow-up committee will function.
Meanwhile, there has been little progress towards ending government repression against critical voices. As the coordinator of the Filimbi citizens’ movement lamented, “the sharing of power seems to have taken precedence over confidence building measures.”
Seven Congolese media outlets close to the opposition and Radio France Internationale (RFI) in Kinshasa remain blocked.
LUCHA activist Justin Mutabesha was released on Monday, after 32 days of detention in Goma. The Filimbi activist Carbone Beni was released on Wednesday, after 29 days of secret detention in Kinshasa, first at a military camp and later at an intelligence agency detention center. But at least nine other pro-democracy youth activists remain in detention, including LUCHA activists Jean-Paul Mualaba Biaya and Nicolas Mbiya Kabeya in Mbuji-Mayi, Fabrice Mutsirwa, Jacques Muhindo, Faustin Dunia, and Glody Ntambwe in Goma, and Compte à Rembours (“Countdown”) activists Chris Shematsi, John Ngandu and Samuel Bosasele in Kinshasa.
During a press conference Monday attended by Human Rights Watch, the citizens’ movement Filimbi accused government officials of trying to co-opt their movement by organizing a press conference in their name. LUCHA has also decried similar measures. Some of the activists held in detention were reportedly pressured, threatened, or offered money to work for the intelligence services or the ruling coalition as a condition for their release.
A number of political leaders are also still in detention or have yet to be officially cleared of charges, including the seven so-called “emblematic” cases discussed during the dialogue.
On Monday, police intervened twice before and during a press conference in Kinshasa organized by lawyers of opposition leader Franck Diongo, sentenced to five years in prison on December 28, following a hasty trial. Several armed policemen arrested two party members, beat up several other Diongo supporters, and destroyed posters and pictures. The police spokesperson says one police officer was wounded in the incident.
On January 5, opposition leader Gabriel Kyungu was summoned to court to verify the authenticity of a video transcript of a meeting during which he allegedly insulted the president. Two days later, he was reportedly prevented from leaving Lubumbashi for a flight to Kinshasa. The provincial parliament of Haut-Katanga had voted on December 27 to lift his parliamentary immunity. Kyungu has been repeatedly harassed since leaving the presidential majority in September 2015.
Government officials and security forces should drop charges and release activists and others arrested because of their political views or peaceful activities, open banned media outlets, and end all harassment of pro-democracy activists and the political opposition. Justice for past repression is also critical.
Kabila could help address remaining doubts and suspicions clouding the New Year’s Eve deal by signing the agreement himself and making a public commitment to abide by its provisions.
Deal Sets Congo on Path toward First Democratic Transition, but Huge Challenges Ahead
After weeks of intense negotiations, and much bloodshed, participants at talks mediated by the Catholic Church concluded an agreement just before midnight on New Year’s Eve. The deal – signed by representatives from the ruling coalition, the political opposition, and civil society organizations – includes a clear commitment that presidential elections will be held before the end of 2017, that President Joseph Kabila will not seek a third term, and that there will be no referendum nor changes to the constitution.
This is a significant development, following months of speculation that Kabila would not step down and open calls by some Kabila loyalists for him to defy the constitution’s term limits and cling to power indefinitely.
But huge challenges remain.
The agreement calls for a national follow-up committee to oversee implementation of the deal and the organization of presidential, legislative, and provincial elections in 2017. It also says that a new prime minister will be appointed, chosen by the Rassemblement opposition coalition, and that the national and provincial governments will be made up of members of the majority and opposition. But there’s no detailed calendar. It’s not yet clear how the follow-up committee will be structured or when the new prime minister and national and provincial governments will be appointed. Many also question whether the country can organize three elections in 2017 and say it would be more realistic to focus on presidential and legislative elections before organizing provincial elections.
Kabila has not yet signed the agreement, and while many say that it’s enough for his representatives to have signed on his behalf, the deal would likely have much more credibility in the eyes of the population if it included Kabila’s signature.
The opposition Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) and the coalition Front for Respect of the Constitution expressed reservations about the agreement regarding the point that Kabila can stay in power during the transition. Many Congolese youth activists say the best guarantee of credible elections would be for Kabila to step down immediately.
Perhaps most importantly, “confidence building measures” have yet to be implemented, and there are no clear guarantees that two years of repression will be reversed. Senior intelligence and security force officers responsible for much of the repression remain in office. The agreement says that four of the seven “emblematic” cases of political prisoners or activists in exile have been addressed, including Antipas Mbusa Nyamwisi, Roger Lumbala, Moïse Moni Della, and Floribert Anzuluni. But they have yet to be released or cleared of charges at the time of writing. The agreement says the other three cases – Moïse Katumbi, Jean-Claude Muyambo, and Eugène Diomi Ndongala – and those of other political prisoners or those in exile, will be dealt with later by a committee of magistrates or through the CENCO bishops’ mediation.
Katumbi called on the opposition to sign, saying he didn’t want his case to block the agreement, adding that the bishops have committed to dealing with his case later.
Meanwhile, as the agreement was being finalized, repression against the political opposition, pro-democracy activists, the media, and peaceful protesters seems to have continued unabated.
There has been no attempt to seek justice for the killings of at least 40 people by security forces during protests in Kinshasa and other cities on December 20, 2016, the day after Kabila’s two-term limit ended.
Opposition leader Franck Diongo was arrested on December 19, and convicted and sentenced to five years in prison on December 28, following a hasty trial that he attended in a wheelchair and on a drip from the mistreatment he endured during arrest. And the provincial parliament of Haut Katanga voted on December 27 to lift the parliamentary immunity for opposition leader Gabriel Kyungu, accused of insulting Kabila.
At least 10 pro-democracy youth activists from LUCHA, Filimbi, and Compte à Rembours (“Countdown”) are still in detention, arrested in recent weeks over peaceful protests calling for Kabila to respect the constitution and step down. Some have been held in secret detention without access to their families or lawyers. The Kinshasa representative for Filimbi, Carbone Beni, for example, was arrested on December 13 alongside other activists outside the building in Kinshasa where the talks were being held. His family had no news about him until his wife received a handwritten note from Beni on December 26, informing her that he is being held at the Tshatshi military camp and asking her to remain strong, look after their children, and tell his mother he loves her. A month earlier unidentified assailants abducted Beni and beat him badly before releasing him.
Other activists who were released told us about the conditions of their detention. Gloria Sengha, a LUCHA activist, was arrested on December 16 while walking in Kinshasa. She was thrown into a car, blindfolded and beaten, and her belongings stolen. Held in incommunicado detention first at Camp Tshatshi and then at the 3Z detention center of the intelligence services, she was interrogated about LUCHA and its supporters. She received little food and water until her release on December 27.
Constant Mutamba, an activist from the Nouvelle Génération pour l'Émergence du Congo (NOGEC) citizens’ movement, was arrested in the Ngiri-Ngiri neighborhood of Kinshasa in the early hours of December 20 while monitoring as Congolese took to the streets, blowing whistles and banging on pots and pans to tell Kabila his time was up. Several armed men grabbed him, beat him, put a ski mask over his head and threw him into a car. He said he was held at an unknown location, tied to a chair and beaten with blunt objects. The assailants threatened that he would never see his wife and two children again and asked him to reveal the identity of his group’s supporters. He was left blindfolded until being dropped off on the street the next day.
The signal for Radio France Internationale (RFI), the most important international news outlet in Congo, has now been blocked in Kinshasa for nearly two months. At least six Congolese media outlets also remain blocked.
So while the New Year’s Eve deal could prove to be a big step toward a democratic transition, there’s still a long road ahead. The parties should now work to ensure strict implementation of the deal. Concrete measures are needed to end the climate of repression. Credible elections can't be organized when opposition leaders and activists are thrown in prison and beaten, and convicted on trumped-up charges, when independent media outlets are shut down or blocked, and when security forces fire live rounds on peaceful protesters.
Congo’s international and regional partners – whose pressure seems to have led Kabila to make important concessions – should remain engaged. They should support the organization of credible, timely elections and signal that they stand ready to impose additional targeted sanctions and other punitive measures should the repression continue, if those responsible for past abuses are not held to account, or if efforts are made to prevent or delay the organization of elections.
DR Congo Death Toll Rises, Mass Arrests After Protests
The streets of Kinshasa and other cities in the Democratic Republic of Congo were quieter yesterday, following Tuesday’s deadly protests, as many families tried in vain to find their loved ones who were arrested or killed. Others stayed home, fearing the prospect of more violence and repression. Today, many went back to work and school, but the situation remains volatile.
Human Rights Watch has now confirmed that security forces killed at least 34 people during Tuesday’s protests, including 19 in Kinshasa, 5 in Lubumbashi, 6 in Boma, and 4 in Matadi. We’ve received a number of additional reports that we’re still working to verify.
Congo’s Security Forces Crack Down on Whistling Demonstrators
Update: As of Tuesday evening, Human Rights Watch confirmed at least 26 deaths during protests today in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and other cities.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has become a powder keg, with whistling demonstrators facing off against security forces, and armed groups mobilizing as President Joseph Kabila’s mandate expires. Human Rights Watch has confirmed that security forces killed at least three people on Tuesday morning in the capital, Kinshasa, and scores more have been arrested since Monday morning, the last day of President Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit.
From about 10 p.m. on Monday, the “sound of whistles” pierced many neighborhoods of Kinshasa. Groups had taken to the streets, whistling to send the message to Kabila that his time in office would be up at midnight. A “concert of whistles” was also heard in parts of the southern city of Lubumbashi.
In both cities, military and police forces were heavily deployed and fired gunshots in some neighborhoods to disperse the whistling protesters. The actual number of victims is difficult to determine and reports are still being verified. Many witnesses told us about door-to-door searches by Republican Guard soldiers, with youth being arrested from their homes, and about unusual checkpoints where security forces stopped people on the roads, questioning them about potential ties to the political opposition, confiscating money and cellphones. The whistling protests – and the crackdown – were strongest in the Kinshasa neighborhoods of Selembao, Mont Ngafula, Kimbangu, Ngiri-Ngiri, Ndjili, Masina, Matete, and Lemba, and in the Lubumbashi neighborhood of Kenya.
Early on Tuesday morning, the long-time opposition leader and president of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) political party and Rassemblement coalition Etienne Tshisekedi delivered a video message posted on YouTube, with “a solemn appeal to the Congolese people to not recognize the...illegal and illegitimate authority of Joseph Kabila and to peacefully resist [his] coup d’état.”
Further protests have since erupted in many parts of Kinshasa and Lubumbashi. Security forces have responded in many areas by firing live bullets and teargas. We’ve received reports of many people killed and wounded on Tuesday morning by the security forces, which we’re still working to confirm. And the reports of arrests continue.
In Kinshasa, protesters burned the headquarters of the ruling People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD). And there are reports that protesters beat police officers in Lubumbashi.
Monday’s ‘Villes Morte’
The protests that began Monday night followed what turned out to be largely a “ville morte” or general strike in Kinshasa and other cities on the last day of Kabila’s mandate. Military, police, and intelligence agents were heavily deployed in cities and towns across the country – including Kinshasa, Goma, Lubumbashi, Bunia, Beni, Walikale, Kindu, Uvira, Kalemie, Mbuji-Mayi, Mbandaka, and Lisala – in an apparent attempt to suppress protests. Many residents kept their children home from school and stayed indoors with shops and businesses closed.
Some people still attempted to protest. In the eastern town of Beni, security forces fired in the air to disperse demonstrators, though a protester was injured by a stray bullet. Human Rights Watch received credible reports of over 100 people arrested on Monday, including 41 in Goma, 28 in Kinshasa, 19 in Bunyakiri, around a dozen in Beni, five in Bukavu, and one in Kalemie. Most were arrested while protesting, planning to protest, while gathered outdoors in groups, or just for wearing red – which has become a symbol of Kabila’s “red card”.
Eleven members of the Rassemblement opposition party coalition were arrested as they were peacefully marching down the street in the center of Goma – including representatives of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development (ECIDE), Social Movement for Renewal (MSR), National Party for Development and Democracy (PND), and UDPS political parties. They were arrested in the presence of a team of United Nations human rights observers and transferred to the police intelligence prison. The human rights observers were later denied access to them.
LUCHA activist Fabrice Mutsiirwa was arrested in Goma at about 9 a.m. on Monday. Another LUCHA activist Adolf Miruho was arrested when visiting Fabrice in detention on Tuesday morning. A third LUCHA activist, Bienfait Katalanwa, was abducted on Sunday by four men in civilian clothes and released on Monday evening.
In Kinshasa, security forces in large numbers deployed outside the University of Kinshasa, blocking students from protesting during a standoff that lasted several hours on Monday morning. In the afternoon, authorities in Kinshasa arrested Franck Diongo, president of the opposition party Movement of Progressive Lumumbists (MLP) and a member of the Rassemblement, after he and his colleagues apprehended three men who, according to Diongo, were Republican Guard soldiers wearing civilian clothes. Diongo said he feared they had been sent to attack him.
Early on Monday morning in the eastern town of Butembo, militia fighters clashed with security forces, killing a reported 13 people, including a UN peacekeeper. In Manono in the former Katanga province, at least 40 people were wounded during an attack allegedly carried out by a Batwa militia on Monday night, according to the UN. Fighting has also been reported on Tuesday between a militia group and the Congolese army in the southern city of Kananga. While it is too early to know the exact circumstances of these attacks, the heightened armed group mobilization amid the country’s volatile political context is very evident.
As part of a broader crackdown on the media, authorities blocked the signals for the Congolese news outlets close to the opposition, Canal Congo TV (CCTV) and Radio Liberté Kinshasa, on Monday morning. The signal for Radio France Internationale (RFI), the most important international news outlet in Congo, has been blocked in Kinshasa since November 5. The RFI signal from neighboring Brazzaville has been jammed since November 18.
In the midst of it all, at 11:45 p.m. on Monday – as the whistle blowing, banging of pots and pans, and cries that Kabila should leave office were escalating – the news anchor on Congo’s government-run national television station announced that Kabila had signed a decree, appointing some 60 new ministers to the government to be led by Prime Minister Sami Badibanga. The new government only includes members of Kabila’s ruling coalition and the opposition parties that participated in the African Union-mediated national dialogue. Members of the Rassemblement coalition and other opposition parties that only took part in the ongoing Catholic Church-mediated dialogue have no posts.
The midnight announcement may have been made to distract from the growing calls for Kabila to step down, while also showing that the country is still being governed. Some have also viewed it as an affront toward, or dismissal of, the Rassemblement and the Catholic Church-mediated talks.
In another apparent attempt to maintain the façade that everything is under control, Kabila’s diplomatic advisor Kikaya Bin Karubi held a press conference in Kinshasa on Monday afternoon, where he stated that “President Kabila will still be in power tomorrow.” He said that “only the population could put pressure on President Kabila,” and “as far as [he] can tell, that isn’t happening.”
Also on Monday, three UN experts called on the authorities to lift “abusive” restrictions on protesters, including an unlawful ban and a crackdown on social media. “The targeted repression of dissenting voices of civil society and human rights defenders is contrary to democratic principles,” the experts noted. “If civil society is not allowed to exercise the rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly, protesters will inevitably resort to violence, for which only the authorities are to be blamed.” The government of France also expressed its concern Monday about the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.
Tensions High in Congo on Last Day of Kabila’s Mandate
Today should have been Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila’s last day in office, when he would be handing over the reins to a newly elected president, marking the country’s first peaceful transition of power from one democratically elected leader to another.
Instead, he shows no signs of leaving.
The last-minute Catholic Church-mediated dialogue between opposition political parties and the ruling coalition failed to reach an agreement, and the bishops left the country on Saturday for their end-of-the-year gathering with the pope in The Vatican, promising that the dialogue will resume after their return on December 21. The main obstacle: Kabila’s refusal to commit to leaving office at the end of his second term in accordance with the constitution. Nor have the countless calls for him to do so by Congolese and international actors budged him.
A group of 79 women’s groups from Congo and around the world sent a public letter to Kabila on December 15, calling on him to do just that in order to “stop violence” and “lead the country down the path of peace.”
Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Kenneth Roth echoed their sentiments, saying in a December 16 report that President Kabila is the “one person” who could prevent “widespread violence and chaos in the coming days…by making a clear, public commitment to step down and by ending the violent repression by those under his command.” The report detailed the government’s repression since September and issued recommendations for preventing large-scale violence in the coming days.
But government and security forces seem to be clamping down and preparing for heightened repression in the near future. Security forces were already heavily deployed this weekend in the capital, Kinshasa, as well as Goma and other cities. Additionally, the government instructed telecommunications companies to block social media sites – a measure that went into effect with most networks in Congo soon after midnight last night.
Two members of pro-government youth leagues in Kinshasa told Human Rights Watch they were called to a meeting yesterday with senior security, intelligence, and government officials who instructed them to infiltrate the planned protests in the coming days and provoke looting and violence, in order to push security forces to fire on the demonstrators. They said they were divided into groups to target four areas of Kinshasa: Limete, Tshangu, Rond-point Ngaba, and Kintambo magasin. They were promised 120,000 Congolese francs (around US$100) each. The recruits said that some soldiers were mixed in among the members of youth leagues, and that the person responsible for each of the four groups was given a revolver.
Members of the youth leagues were given similar instructions to infiltrate protests in September.
Meanwhile, more activists and opposition members have been arrested or gone missing: LUCHA activists Gloria Sengha and Musasa Tshibanda have been missing in Kinshasa since Friday. And on Saturday evening, two members of the Engagement for Citizenship and Development (ECIDE) opposition political party, Christian Badose and Andre Bismwa, were arrested by men in uniform in Goma and taken to an unknown location. Five Belgian journalists were expelled on Friday, and the authorities forced a Belgian government transport plane to leave Kinshasa.
A flurry of declarations were published over the past few days: The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights called on the Congolese “government, and especially its security forces, to take all necessary measures to guarantee the rights to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly.” The pope called on people to pray for the success of the dialogue, and the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO) called for calm and for all sides to respect human rights. The European Union’s High Representative said that “now, more than ever,” the EU calls on Congolese authorities to ensure “the strict respect of fundamental freedoms, and to show maximum restraint and refrain from a disproportionate use of force in their reaction to demonstrations” and on civil society and opposition actors to ensure that their actions remain non-violent.
Despite the rising tensions, Congolese government officials have declared that December 19 and 20 will be normal days and “life with continue,” while the police say that any group of 10 people or more gathered together will be dispersed. Opposition leaders have called on the population to “assume their responsibilities” and on security forces to refrain from firing on the population.
The pro-democracy youth movement LUCHA called on all Congolese to “descend massively” on the streets and to “use all legitimate means” to “take sovereignty back from the hands of Kabila.” They urge the population to refrain from any acts of violence, and the security forces to show they are “on the side of the people.” They say the demonstrations will start on Monday “and continue until the effective departure of Kabila, no matter how long it will take.” LUCHA also made their “final call” to Kabila to announce his resignation before midnight Monday, and to leave the presidency “honorably.”
Kabila should abide by the constitution and heed this call, and all sides should respect the pleas for non-violence.
The Family Fortune, and Why Congo’s Kabila May Be Clinging to Power
In a groundbreaking investigation published on Thursday by Bloomberg News, journalists for the first time map out the sprawling business network President Joseph Kabila and his family have amassed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and beyond.
Over the past year, journalists Michael Kavanagh, Thomas Wilson, and Franz Wild, with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and the Congo Research Group, analyzed thousands of company documents and court filings and interviewed dozens of stakeholders. They found that the Kabila family – including the president, his wife, two children, and eight of his siblings – is involved in at least 70 companies that have brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the family. Two of the family businesses own diamond permits running along 450 miles of the country’s southwestern border with Angola.
“Together the Kabilas have built a network of businesses that reaches into every corner of Congo’s economy,” the report said. “The sprawling network may help explain why the president is ignoring pleas by the U.S., the European Union and a majority of the Congolese people to hand over power next week, though his advisers dispute this.” Kabila’s term of office ends December 19, as mandated by Congo’s constitution.
According to Francis Kalombo, one of Kabila’s close allies until he joined the opposition last year, Kabila says in private that he’s staying put. “He’s not going to do all that he’s doing, make all this effort, for one more year,” Kalombo told the journalists. “For him, it’s for life.”
The study also found how the family has relied on the Republican Guard – an elite force of some 12,000 soldiers whose primary responsibility is to protect the president – to secure their business interests and landholdings, often through intimidation and fear. In one of the diamond concessions owned by the family, the Bloomberg journalists described how they saw diamond diggers hand over “buckets of potentially gem-filled gravel as an informal tax” when the Republican Guard soldiers came by. In a cobalt deposit known as Wisky, where diggers say they “worked for the presidential family under the supervision of Republican Guard soldiers,” more than 100 diggers died in cave-ins during a six-week period in late 2015, according to a report by the Belgian magazine Moustique. A digger interviewed by Bloomberg said the total number killed was significantly higher.
The Bloomberg report also documented how Republican Guard soldiers accompanied the president’s wife, Olive Lembe, after she bought a cattle farm in Kilolirwe, North Kivu and demanded that farmers “remove their makeshift homes or watch soldiers destroy them.”
Human Rights Watch has also documented how the first lady relied on the Republican Guard to force families out of their homes after she acquired the land they were living on. More than 20 witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Republican Guard soldiers burned several dozen homes in Kilolirwe in July 2014, telling inhabitants “to leave, go away.” The previous month the village chief had told the population to leave: “Olive Lembe asked me to tell you that she has already bought the land.” The first lady appeared at a later public gathering, ordering the population to leave or face expulsion.
The Bloomberg report ends with a reflection from the former head of credit at a bank in Congo dominated by the president’s family: Those who are “really keeping Kabila in power,” he says, are “the network of people running the private businesses of the family. …If you want Kabila to pay attention, you have to target the financiers."
Congolese Activists Arrested Outside Church-Mediated Talks
Filimbi and other youth movements had staged a peaceful sit-in calling on all dialogue participants to respect the constitution - including for Kabila to step down when his term ends on Monday.
Carbone Beni, Filimbi’s Kinshasa representative, was among those arrested. On November 19, unknown assailants had abducted him and beat him badly before releasing him the next morning.
On December 11, police broke up a planned concert organized by Filimbi in Kinshasa’s Masina neighborhood, taking down the podium, seizing musical instruments, and arresting at least six musicians, who remain in detention. The concert was organized to raise awareness about the “Bye Bye Kabila” campaign, launched by youth movements on November 26.
In eastern Congo, nine members of the youth movement LUCHA arrested in Goma and Bunia since late October remain in detention.
EU and US Slap Sanctions on Top DR Congo Officials
One week before the end of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit on December 19, the United States and European Union have announced targeted sanctions against top officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The sanctions – which include travel bans and assets freezes – send an unequivocal message that those responsible for planning, ordering, or executing violent repression will face consequences – no matter their rank or position.
In a move many across Congo had been waiting for, the US went higher up the chain of command than the sanctions announced in June and September, targeting Kalev Mutondo, director of the country’s National Intelligence Agency, and Evariste Boshab, vice prime minister and interior minister. Mutondo and Boshab have been the architects of much of the repression of pro-democracy activists, the political opposition, peaceful protesters, and the media over the past two years, as Kabila sought to hold on to power beyond his term limit.
The US Treasury Department said in a statement that the Congolese government “continues to suppress political opposition and delay political progress in the country, often through violent means,” and that Mutondo and Boshab were named for “engaging in actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions” in Congo.
Earlier today, the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council announced targeted sanctions against seven senior security officials. According to the EU, the following four individuals “contributed to acts constituting serious violations of human rights in the DRC, by planning, directing or carrying out those acts”: Ilunga Kampete, commander of the Republican Guard; Gabriel Amisi Kumba, commander for the western region of the Congolese army; Ferdinand Ilunga Luyolo, commander of the anti-riot body Légion Nationale d'Intervention of the Congolese National Police; and Celestin Kanyama, Kinshasa police commissioner.
The EU imposed sanctions on three other senior figures for “trying to obstruct a consensual and peaceful solution to the crisis as regards the holding of elections in the DRC, in particular through acts of violence, repression or incitement to violence, or actions that undermine the rule of law”: John Numbi, former inspector-general of the Congolese National Police; Roger Kibelisa, interior director of the National Intelligence Agency; and Delphin Kahimbi, director of military intelligence.
The strong action by the US and EU signals grave concern about the direction Congo is heading, and the real risk the country could descend into large-scale violence in the coming weeks.
On December 1, the European Parliament urged the EU to adopt targeted sanctions against senior government and security forces after the EU had announced in October it would “use all means at its disposal” against individuals responsible for serious human rights violations, who promote violence, or who “obstruct a consensual and peaceful solution to the crisis.” On December 9, 72 Congolese and 15 international human rights organizations issued a statement, calling on the US and the EU to expand targeted sanctions.
Kabila and other senior officials should now take steps to end repressive measures, including allowing peaceful protests and ordering security forces not to use excessive force, by releasing political prisoners and dropping unjust charges against political leaders and pro-democracy activists, and by opening barred media outlets.
Most critical is that Kabila make a public commitment to respect the constitution and announce he will step down from office.
Rights Groups Call for EU, US to Sanction Senior Congolese Officials
In an effort to stem violence in the coming weeks, 72 Congolese and 15 international human rights organizations issued a statement on Friday calling on the United States and the European Union to expand targeted sanctions against senior Democratic Republic of Congo officials implicated in serious rights abuses. The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is due to discuss Congo on Monday.
UN Security Council Raises Alarm about Possible Violence in DR Congo
All 15 members of the Council, plus the chief of Congo’s UN peacekeeping mission (MONUSCO) Maman Sidikou, and Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs Tayé-Brook Zerihoun, shared a strong sense of foreboding. It is now less than two weeks before the end of President Joseph Kabila’s second term on December 19.
In a strongly-worded statement, the President of the Council emphasized concerns “about the risk for destabilization of the country and the region as a whole … in the absence of a swift and consensual resolution to the current political crisis.” In the words of the ambassador of New Zealand, “there has been no shortcoming of warnings to the Security Council regarding the risk of conflict in the DRC.”
Angola evoked the threat to “regional peace and security,” calling on all sides to avoid violence “at all costs.” Ukraine’s ambassador warned that “if the situation descends into violence, there will be no winners but only losers,” reminding Council members that the “deaths of protesters [during demonstrations in September] are fresh in our memory.” He called for “maximum restraint.”
Sharing the sense of urgency, France warned that “if there is a spiral of violence, nobody can say where it will stop and when it will stop.” More subdued but still concerned, the Ambassador of China cautioned that the “political process is at a critical juncture” and the security situation “still fragile.”
The ambassador of the United Kingdom cautioned that “we all know what comes next if he [President Kabila] makes the wrong decision. We saw it in the bloodied streets of Kinshasa in September. We cannot allow a repeat of such barbarity in a fortnight’s time.” He called on the Council to send an unequivocal message to Kabila to make a commitment that he will not stand for a third term as president. “The two term limit cannot be changed,” he said, “and certainly not just to suit one man’s political agenda.” The ambassador said that there must be “consequences” for Kabila if he were to decide otherwise. The ambassador also called on the Security Council to take guidance from the European Union, which threatened to impose sanctions on members of the Congolese security forces responsible for serious abuses.
“Kabila needs to make a clear and public statement that he will not seek a third term,” the US ambassador said. She stressed that “elections could take place in 2017,” because it is not a “technical problem” but a “problem of political will.”
Nearly all ambassadors called on political stakeholders in Congo to resume dialogue and find meaningful compromise. In this regard, the US ambassador cited the Catholic Church’s efforts, which “present the best hope” in her opinion, while Japan called for “direct dialogue” between President Kabila and opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi.
Regarding MONUSCO’s role, the UK ambassador insisted that “the biggest peacekeeping mission in the world with a clear mandate to protect civilians robustly cannot stand by if civilians are threatened.” MONUSCO chief Sidikou elaborated on the measures the mission has taken to refine its contingency plans in order to diffuse potential violence and protect civilians. He stressed, however, that these efforts “may not be fully sufficient to mitigate or respond adequately to any major outbreak of politically-related violence,” and he warned that the UN’s military and police forces in Kinshasa “are stretched thin.”
Perhaps giving in to the pressure, Kabila met on Monday with the Catholic Church’s Conference of Episcopal Bishops in Congo (CENCO), and the presidency later issued a statement saying the president had urged the bishops to continue their mediation efforts – a seeming reversal from the statement released by his ruling coalition on Friday, calling the Catholic Church’s mediation efforts a failure.
President Kabila should now take the next step and take action before December 19, including – most importantly – a public commitment that he will step down and not seek to change the constitution or run for a third term.
MONUSCO should also heed the calls from Security Council members and ensure that the mission is prepared to do all it can to protect the population during potential political violence on or around December 19. And UN member states, including police and military troop contributors to MONUSCO, should ensure the mission has the resources and will to effectively carry out its mandate.
Congo Mediation Efforts by Catholic Church Falter
After a month of diplomacy by the Catholic Church to overcome the Democratic Republic of Congo’s political impasse, President Joseph Kabila’s ruling coalition today dismissed the effort as a “failure.” This could block any chance of an inclusive agreement before the December 19 deadline, when Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit will be up.
During a press conference today in Kinshasa attended by Human Rights Watch, archbishops of the Catholic Church’s Conference of Episcopal Bishops in Congo (CENCO) noted that many of the most contentious issues remain unresolved. The archbishops also called for direct talks between the main parties. The disagreements, they said, are regarding the constitution and how it should be respected; the sequencing, timing, and financing of elections; the independence of the electoral commission; how institutions will function during the transition period; and measures that will be taken to ease political tensions.
If all parties “take initiative and show good will,” the archbishops said, a political compromise is still within reach. Warning that “the hour is grave” and that “without an agreement, anything can happen,” CENCO called on all sides to act responsibly to “prevent our country from plunging into an uncontrollable situation.”
Hours after the press conference, the ruling coalition published a statement calling CENCO’s efforts a “failure.” The coalition blamed the opposition for “flagrant contradictions” and “demands harmful to the spirit and text of the constitution,” and regretting the “time unnecessarily lost.” They then called on the president to implement the “national dialogue” agreement, which would allow Kabila to stay in power at least until April 2018, and which most main opposition parties did not sign.
The Rassemblement opposition coalition “noted with satisfaction” the continued commitment of the archbishops to search for an “appropriate solution” to the crisis “which could end in chaos.” It reiterated its commitment and willingness to participate in a “truly inclusive dialogue” and supported the call for direct talks between the parties to find a peaceful solution to the crisis before the end of Kabila’s second term.
At the request of President Kabila, Catholic bishops had begun consultations in early November with opposition and civil society groups, seeking, as one of the bishops told us, a consensus that would prevent the country from collapsing into violence after December 19.
In other news, Rodrigue Bintene Mimbo, a researcher with the Congolese polling institute Bureau d’Etude de Recherche et de Consulting International was released from detention yesterday. Intelligence agents arrested him on June 26, 2016, after he had spent two weeks conducting research in Congo’s central Sankuru province for a nationwide opinion survey, which found that three-quarters of those polled wanted President Kabila to step down on December 19. Mimbo was never charged with a crime.
Congolese Youth Arrested Demanding Rights
Security forces in the eastern city of Bunia arrested five members of the pro-democracy youth movement Struggle for Change (LUCHA) on Thursday as a United Nations official warned of the danger of “silencing critical voices” in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The arrests came as the activists were trying to hold a press conference to urge President Joseph Kabila to leave office at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit on December 19. A journalist was also arrested. They remain in detention at time of writing.
On Saturday, LUCHA together with the youth movement Filimbi, and youth wings of the Rassemblement opposition coalition and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) opposition party, had launched the “Bye Bye Kabila” campaign in the capital, Kinshasa. Authorities banned the planned meeting and briefly detained an activist and journalist. Two days earlier, on November 24, Filimbi activist Jeef Mabika was arrested by Congolese security forces. He was provisionally released on Thursday after putting up bail. Totoro Mukenge, president of the Union of Congolese Youth for Change (UJCC), was also released on Friday, after being held incommunicado by the intelligence agency, without charge or access to his family or lawyers, since September 16.
In a press statement, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye said “the silencing of critical voices through arrests, censorship and other forms of government control poses risks for the stability of the country which is already in a seriously fragile state.” He added that “freedom of expression in the DRC has increasingly been threatened by the criminalization of critics and the opposition, including the use of harsh punishments.”
Also on Thursday, the European Parliament denounced the increasingly restricted political space, called for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners, and urged the European Union to adopt targeted sanctions against senior Congolese government and security forces officials “responsible for the violent repression of demonstrations and the political impasse which is preventing a peaceful and constitutional transition of power,” notably Kalev Mutond, Maj. Gen. John Numbi, Gen. Ilunga Kampete, Maj. Gen. Gabriel Amisi Kumba, and Gen. Célestin Kanyama.
House of Congo Opposition Leader Attacked
Early this morning, unidentified assailants set fire to the house entrance gate of opposition leader Gabriel Kyungu in the southern city of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo. Since leaving the ruling party in September 2015 to join the opposition coalition G7, Kyungu, 78-years-old and the founder of the National Union of Federalists of Congo (UNAFEC), has faced repeated harassment from the authorities.
On November 25, a parliamentary commission was formed to determine whether to strip Kyungu of his political immunity in the face of allegations he insulted President Joseph Kabila in April.
On November 19, dozens of unidentified assailants vandalized the homes of Mwando Simba, one of the leaders of the G7 opposition coalition, and his son and member of parliament, Christian Mwando, also in Lubumbashi. On the same day, police surrounded Kyungu’s residence, a common intimidation tactic used against opposition leaders.
Also this week, authorities on Tuesday provisionally released Bruno Tshibala, deputy secretary-general of one of the leading opposition parties, Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UPDS) and spokesperson of the opposition coalition Rassemblement. Immigration officials had arrested him at Kinshasa’s international airport as he was attempting to board a plane for Brussels on October 9. He remains accused of plotting to commit a massacre and acts of pillage and destruction, charges that appear politically motivated.
Congolese Youth Launch ‘Bye Bye Kabila’ Campaign
Congolese youth groups are stepping up calls on President Joseph Kabila to step down from office on December 19 when his second term ends, as the constitution mandates.
On Saturday, pro-democracy youth movements Struggle for Change (LUCHA) and Filimbi, together with the youth wings of the Rassemblement opposition coalition and the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) opposition party, launched a campaign called “Bye Bye Kabila” and started a countdown to the last day of Kabila’s second term.
Police sought to intimidate and arrest the organizers in advance of the planned event, the latest heavy-handed effort by police to tamp down public protests. Kinshasa Governor André Kimbuta called on the organizers to cancel their activities because the organizations are not legally registered, even though there is no legal requirement to be registered as an organization in order to hold a peaceful political meeting in Congo. Security forces arrested Filimbi activist Jeef Mabika on Thursday morning at his house. His whereabouts remain unknown.
On Saturday, Rassamblement youth member Bony Mputu Dikasa decided against participating in the awareness-raising campaign after he saw suspicious-looking men watching the activists. He left the area and was then followed by three armed men in civilian clothes. They stopped him, threatened him with a pistol, questioned him about his role in the campaign, and detained him for several hours. A police captain later told him that authorities are closely watching his group’s movements. A family member was forced to pay for his release. Another Filimbi activist was reportedly arrested on the same day but the details of his arrest and his current whereabouts remain unknown.
A Congolese cameraman who tried to take footage of the campaign was arrested and detained for two hours by men in civilian clothes.
Despite the arrests, about 20 youth activists managed to distribute leaflets in Kinshasa’s Kasavubu neighborhood on Saturday, announcing the start of the “Bye Bye Kabila” campaign.
Impose Targeted Sanctions on Congo Before it’s Too Late
Less than one month before the December 19 deadline marking the end of President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated two-term limit, he still has not made any clear commitment on if and when he will step down. All while government repression against pro-democracy activists, the opposition, protesters, and the media has intensified at an alarming rate. The so-called “national dialogue” – which postponed the elections to at least April 2018 – and the appointment of Samy Badibanga from the opposition as prime minister have not succeeded in easing tensions. The Catholic Church is pursuing its mediation efforts to reach a more inclusive political deal – but time is running out.
If President Kabila stays in power beyond December 19 without a clear public commitment on when he will step down and a broad consensus on organizing the transition period to elections, there is a risk that protests will erupt and security forces respond with excessive force. The country could descend into widespread violence and chaos.
Congo’s regional and international partners should be mobilizing at the highest levels to prevent this scenario. They should apply targeted sanctions against officials implicated in abuses to show there are real consequences for repression and to help deter further violence.
The targeted sanctions imposed by the US on several officials at the forefront of violence against protesters had a notable deterrent effect and rattled those implicated. But the impact could be much greater if they targeted more senior government and intelligence officials – and if the European Union and United Nations Security Council also took action.
In October, the EU announced it would “use all means at its disposal” against individuals responsible for serious human rights violations, who promote violence, or who “obstruct a consensual and peaceful solution to the crisis.” The EU should move now from threats to action and impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against senior Congolese officials responsible for the violent crackdown.
In a resolution passed on November 15 with strong bipartisan support, the US House of Representatives called on the Obama administration to impose additional sanctions on officials in Congo “who impede progress toward a peaceful democratic transition through credible elections that respect the will of the people.” In a letter on Monday, Human Rights Watch also called upon President Barack Obama to take this step before leaving office.
Our research has found that these people played critical roles in the repression, and should be targeted for sanctions: National Intelligence Agency (ANR) Director Kalev Mutond, Vice Prime Minister and Interior Minister Evariste Boshab, Republican Guard overall commander Gen. Ilunga Kampete, western region army commander Gen. Gabriel Amisi (known as “Tango Four”), and Kinshasa police commissioner Gen. Céléstin Kanyama.
The EU, the United States, and the UN should make clear to Kabila that violating the Congolese people’s rights comes at a high price – before there is more bloodshed and it is too late to change course.
Wave of Arrests and Crackdown on Media Ahead of Protests
Congolese authorities continued their crackdown on political dissent, arresting more than a dozen opposition members ahead of tomorrow’s planned demonstrations.
The arrests Thursday night included four members of the “Rassemblement” opposition in Kinshasa and around a dozen others, including some members of the opposition party Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), in Lubumbashi. Two other UDPS members were arrested by soldiers this afternoon in the Limete neighborhood in Kinshasa.
Earlier on Thursday, police fired tear gas to disperse UDPS opposition party sympathizers as they were distributing leaflets to mobilize people for the protest.
The Rassemblement has called for demonstrations tomorrow to show President Joseph Kabila the “final yellow card,” a soccer reference to serve as a warning a month before the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.
In Kinshasa, officials say the ban on all political demonstrations – announced after the September protests – is still in effect, and authorities in Lubumbashi have also announced that the demonstration there is not authorized.
Following the temporary jamming of the UN-supported radio station Radio Okapi and the complete takedown of Radio France International (RFI) in Kinshasa for now 13 days, the radio signals of RFI in neighboring Brazzaville (which many across the river in Kinshasa can listen to) and the Belgian Radio Television of the French Community (RTBF) have also been jammed since this morning.
These latest measures followed yesterday’s surprise appointment of Samy Badibanga, president of the UDPS and allies parliamentary group, made up of dissident UDPS party members, as prime minister of a new government that is expected to be announced in full in the coming days.
Guidelines on Freedom of Expression and Assembly in DR Congo
The “Rassemblement” opposition coalition in the Democratic Republic of Congo has called for nationwide demonstrations Saturday to show President Joseph Kabila the “final yellow card,” a soccer reference to serve as a warning, exactly one month before the end of his constitutionally mandated two term limit.
Given the brutal repression and violence that has characterized past demonstrations – particularly in September, we thought it would be useful to provide an overview on the rights and responsibilities of protesters, political party leaders, government officials, and security forces, according to Congolese and international law:
- People in the Democratic Republic of Congo have the right to express their opinions in a peaceful manner without having to fear repression by the authorities. Security forces have an obligation to remain apolitical, and they must not encroach upon people’s fundamental right to peaceful assembly.
Congo ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1976. Article 19 of the covenant states that “everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” Article 21 of the covenant specifies that “the right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized,” while Article 22 says, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others.”
The freedoms of expression and assembly are also enshrined in articles 23 and 26 of the Congolese constitution. Article 23 stipulates that “All persons have the right to freedom of expression. This right implies the freedom to express their opinions or their convictions, notably by speech, print and pictures, under reserve of respect of the law, for public order and for morality.” Article 26 of the Constitution says that “the freedom of demonstration is guaranteed.”
Article 11 of the African Charter for Human and Peoples’ Rights, ratified by the Congolese government in 1987, also specifies that “Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law, in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.”
- Protesters are required to inform the authorities in advance of a public meeting or demonstration. Prior authorization is not required. Registration as an association is not required.
According to article 26 of the Constitution, “All demonstrations on public roads or in open air require the organizers to inform the competent administrative authority in writing.” Article 29 of the current electoral law further clarifies that “written statements have to be submitted to competent local authorities at least 24 hours before [the demonstration].” This abrogates previous legislation from 1999, which required protesters to solicit permission prior to protests.
Nothing in Congolese law prohibits people from peacefully protesting without being registered as an association. In December 2015, the mayor of Goma wrongfully called on the youth movement Struggle for Change (LUCHA) to cease all activities for lack of legal administrative documents.
As per article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right [of peaceful assembly] other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”
- The national police are primarily charged with ensuring public order and the orderly conduct of demonstrations, including the safety of protesters. The army can only intervene under exceptional circumstances. The Republican Guard has no role to play in ensuring public order during demonstrations.
Article 2 of the 2011 law on the organization and functioning of the police gives the national police force the primary responsibility for ensuring public order and the orderly conduct of demonstrations, including the safety of protesters.
The Congolese army (FARDC) can only intervene with the aim of protecting people and property under exceptional circumstances, such as reinforcing police overwhelmed by an unfolding security situation. The 2009 law on the functioning and administration of the FARDC clarifies that the army can only intervene during demonstrations following a written request by the police.
As for the Republican Guard presidential security detail, their principle responsibility is to secure the president and his official property, as per article 153 of the 2011 army law. They are not allowed to ensure public order during demonstrations or elections.
4. Restrictions on the use of force
The use of lethal or non-lethal force must be legal, necessary, and proportional to the threat, and all other precautions must have been exhausted. Security forces can only resort to lethal force if it is absolutely necessary to protect human life, as stipulated in articles 8 and 9 of the 2011 police law. For police to intervene with force, they need to receive orders from their superiors and must not act on their own initiative, according to article 75 of the 2011 police law. No security officer has the right to give orders to upset public order or shoot at peaceful protesters.
- Responsibilities of Protest Leaders
Leaders of political parties and activist organizations should take necessary steps to prevent or stop their members and supporters from engaging in or inciting violence during demonstrations and other activities. They should appropriately discipline those who engage in violence.
Congolese Authorities Should Release All Political Prisoners
Over the past two years, authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have arbitrarily arrested scores of activists and political opposition leaders and supporters who have opposed attempts by President Joseph Kabila to extend his time in office beyond the constitutionally mandated two-term limit. Many were held for weeks or months by the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) without charge or access to families or lawyers. Others were put on trial on trumped-up charges.
Human Rights Watch has compiled a list of 29 prisoners who remain in detention in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, or Goma. They were arrested since 2015, after speaking out against attempts to extend Kabila’s term or participating in peaceful demonstrations or other political activities. Others were suspected of having links with political opposition figures.
One of the prisoners, Totoro Mukenge, president of the youth group Union of Congolese Youth for Change (UJCC), has been held incommunicado by the ANR since September 16, after having participated in an awareness-raising campaign in Kinshasa on non-violence, peace, and respect for the constitution.
Norbert Luyeye, president of the opposition political party Union of Republicans, has been held by the military intelligence services since August 7, along with six other party members and participants who attended a political meeting at Luyeye’s home on August 4. Another opposition party president, Jean-Claude Muyambo, has been in prison since January 2015, after he mobilized participation in nationwide protests against proposed changes to the country’s electoral law.
Others were arrested because of alleged links to Moise Katumbi, the former Katanga governor and opposition leader. The authorities initially investigated Katumbi for allegedly recruiting mercenaries. He was later tried and convicted in absentia for alleged forgery in connection with a real estate deal and sentenced to three years in prison and a US$1 million fine. One of the judges described in a public letter, and in an interview with Human Rights Watch, how she had been threatened by ANR director Kalev Mutond, and forced to hand down the conviction – a blatant example of the intelligence’s agency interference in the justice sector.
Congo’s government needs to get serious about easing political tensions. One of the first measures it should take is to release all political prisoners and drop politically motivated prosecutions against opposition leaders and political activists.
The list is available here: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/16/dr-congo-political-prisoners-detention
(Many other people have been arrested arbitrarily in Congo over the years and remain in detention. This list includes only those cases documented by Human Rights Watch in the context of the political repression since 2015).
Congolese Government Cracks Down on Foreign Media
The Congolese government is threatening the continued operation of foreign-owned radio and TV stations, the latest attempt to undermine freedom of speech in the country.
On Saturday, Communications Minister Lambert Mende issued a decree that requires foreign radio and TV stations to have Congolese majority shareholders or risk being shutdown within 30 days. Foreign radio outlets without a physical presence in country must broadcast through a Congolese partner approved by the minister. They will have 45 days to comply with the new measures or be prohibited from broadcasting news.
Nine days ago, authorities cut the signal for Radio France International (RFI) in Kinshasa ahead of planned protests. The station remains off the air, denying many Congolese a vital information source.
The new restrictive measures came during a rare visit by United Nations Security Council members to Congo. During meetings with President Joseph Kabila and other officials, Security Council members raised concerns about a ban on public political meetings in several cities across the country, the authorities’ decision to take RFI off the air, and the continued detention of political prisoners.
The meetings brought no clarity as to whether Kabila intended to stay in office beyond the two-term limit, which ends on December 19. When Kabila was asked by council members about his stepping down from the presidency, he merely noted that the constitution currently only allows for two terms but that it could be amended.
On Sunday, police continued their crackdown on freedom of association by dispersing members of the opposition party Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) who were meeting peacefully in a church in Kinshasa’s Mont-Amba district.
Meanwhile, authorities seem to be moving forward with the “national dialogue” agreement which was rejected by most main opposition leaders and civil society activists. Augustin Matata Ponyo announced his resignation as prime minister on Monday morning, paving the way for the appointment of a so-called “government of national unity.” Kabila is expected to address the matter in a speech to the parliament on Tuesday.
Congolese Leaders, Activists Respond to Trump Victory
The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States got a mixed response in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Some political leaders from both the ruling majority and opposition went to Twitter to congratulate the president-elect. President Joseph Kabila’s cabinet director wrote a letter to Trump, congratulating him for his “brilliant election” and “expressed his availability to strengthen with the elected President the friendly relations” between both countries.
Government spokesperson Lambert Mende was a bit more blunt, saying he hopes the new administration will be “much saner and easy going” than the administration of Barack Obama, which he denounced for having “taunted” Congo’s sovereignty and their “unjustified sanctions.” Mende was doubtlessly referring to the US government-imposed targeted sanctions against three security force officers in recent months, in response to ongoing repression. He expressed hopes that with Trump’s election, Congo was now “coming to the end of this.”
Some Congolese activists have expressed concerns that a Trump presidency would bring an end to US engagement in support of human rights and democracy in Congo. But while the concerns may have merit, there has been strong bi-partisan support in the US Congress for targeted sanctions and other tough responses to Kabila’s repressive policies and his efforts to stay in power beyond the end of his second term.
As Congo prepares for its own elections, but with uncertainty about when the vote will be held and when President Kabila will leave office, political leaders from across the spectrum should pay attention to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech – in which she reminded Americans that “our constitutional democracy enshrines the peaceful transfer of power. We don't just respect that. We cherish it.” – and President Obama’s speech later in which he committed to ensuring a smooth transition to the next president, despite an outcome he had not hoped for, and cited the “peaceful transition of power” as “one of the hallmarks of our democracy."
UN Security Council Should Use Congo Visit to Avert Large-Scale Crisis
In response to the worsening political crisis and human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations Security Council will be making a rare visit there later this week. The Council members are due to visit the capital, Kinshasa, and the eastern town of Beni. They will also visit Luanda, capital of neighboring Angola, an important actor in efforts to address the political impasse in Congo. Less than six weeks before the December 19 deadline for when President Joseph Kabila is due to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, the visit offers a last-minute opportunity for the international community to help prevent further bloodshed and open political space to allow for a peaceful transition of power.
Human Rights Watch sent the following letter to Security Council delegations in advance of their visit, with our main recommendations: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/11/09/hrw-letter-un-security-council-visit-dr-congo
Demonstrations Banned, Media Restricted in Congo
Congolese authorities are taking increasingly aggressive measures to stifle the political opposition, blocking radio signals and surrounding the home of the opposition leader ahead of planned protests this past weekend.
Early Saturday morning, ahead of public meetings in cities throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo, authorities cut the signal for Radio France International (RFI) in Kinshasa and the southern city of Lubumbashi, and jammed the signal for the United Nations-supported Radio Okapi. RFI was allowed back on the air in Lubumbashi on Saturday, but it’s still blocked in Kinshasa, and Radio Okapi also remains jammed in parts of Kinshasa – for the fourth day in a row.
By interfering with the signals of the two main radio stations in Congo, officials are blocking access for millions to credible, independent reporting.
The government communications minister, Lambert Mende, justified the move by claiming RFI had “transformed itself into the press attaché of the opposition.” But the real goal seems to be to try prevent people from hearing about the opposition meeting and the government’s repressive moves to prevent the meeting from going ahead.
Police in riot gear and armored vehicles surrounded the home of opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi, due to speak at Saturday’s meeting, as well as the area outside the Stade de Martyrs, where the meeting was due to be held. They blocked Tshisekedi from leaving his home and fired teargas to disperse supporters. Organized soccer matches – including police and soldiers playing in civilian clothes, according to witnesses – were held throughout the day outside the Stade de Martyrs, apparently to block access to the areas where people were due to congregate for the meeting. Security force officers recruited and paid members of youth leagues to infiltrate and cause disorder during the opposition meeting, if it went forward, according to one of the recruits.
The night before the planned meeting, police arrested opposition UPDS member Héritier Bokopo Lifula for having allegedly organized the theft of weapons and ammunition from police stations during the demonstrations in Kinshasa on September 19 and 20. According to his lawyer, security forces looted Lifula’s home during the arrest, and he has not yet been allowed to see his client held at the police station.
Meanwhile, in the eastern city of Goma, police prevented members of the Rassemblement opposition coalition from holding a meeting at the Bungwe hotel. One of the police officers told Human Rights Watch later, “I could not authorize this meeting. If I did, I would be sanctioned by my superiors, and how would I then feed my children?”
Further south, on Monday, intelligence agents arrested the director general of the radio and TV station “Manika” and a colleague in Kolwezi, Lualaba province, after he broadcast an interview with the opposition leader, presidential candidate, and former governor Moise Katumbi, whose soccer team Tout Puissant Mazembe won a match on Sunday. Katumbi was convicted earlier this year in absentia in a politically motivated trial and sentenced to three years in prison and a US$1 million fine. Both journalists were released earlier today.
These developments come less than six weeks before the December 19 deadline for when President Joseph Kabila is due to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.
Over the past two years, Congolese authorities have repeatedly cracked down on journalists and the media. Authorities have blocked the RFI signal several times during sensitive political moments, and the government has shut down a number of media outlets close to the opposition, at least seven of which remain blocked. According to Reporters Without Borders, authorities have assaulted or persecuted at least 63 journalists since January 2016. In an apparent attempt to block independent observers from documenting government repression during demonstrations in Kinshasa on September 19, security forces detained at least eight Congolese and international journalists – including RFI’s Sonia Rolley, an Agence France-Presse photographer, and two TV5 journalists. They were all released by the evening. In January 2015, authorities shut down all internet and text message communication in Kinshasa and elsewhere when political demonstrations erupted across the country in which at least 43 people were killed.
In statements issued over the past few days, the Congolese human rights organization Voix des Sans Voix (VSV) and the 33-organization Coalition for the Respect of the Constitution denounced the government’s abuse of power and called for the RFI and Radio Okapi signals to be restored immediately. The secretary-general of the International Organization of the Francophonie called the move “unacceptable,” while the French foreign minister called it an “incomprehensible decision in today’s world.” The United States embassy said it is “deeply troubled by the apparent jamming” of RFI and Radio Okapi signals.
Visiting Congo later this week, the UN Security Council should deliver strong public messages to Congolese authorities, denouncing these and other forms of political repression and calling for basic freedoms to be respected.