Human Rights Watch expressed serious concern that witnesses who gave testimony to his investigative team in the Democratic Republic of Congo (ex-Zaire) have been arrested by the government, in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Kofi A, Annan.
A copy of the letter is attached.
H.E. Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan
United Nations Headquarters - S-3800
New York, N.Y. 10017
Dear Mr. Secretary-General,
We write to convey Human Rights Watch's gravest concerns about reports we have received from the Democratic Republic of Congo that witnesses who gave testimony to your investigative team (SGIT) in the northwestern city of Mbandaka were arrested by the government. According to reliable information, on at least two occasions during the SGIT's recent inquiry into allegations of massacres of Hutu refugees in the area, government security forces broke in to meetings with witnesses -- journalist Inpongie and a local Red Cross worker -- and took the witnesses for questioning. A third witness, Pastor Abbé Florent, was reportedly arrested twice, both before and after giving information to the SGIT.
At a February 27 briefing at United Nations headquarters, a UN Centre for Human Rights representative told NGOs of the SGIT's concern regarding the arrest of people who spoke to its investigators. The representative gave no further details, and had no ready answer to questions raised by NGO representatives about the provisions envisaged by the SGIT to protect its informants.
There is indeed a vital need for specific protection provisions. When, at your invitation, Human Rights Watch briefed the departing members of your team in Geneva last August, we stressed the protection of the mission's sources as one of our principal concerns. Our latest reports on the DRC: "What Kabila is Hiding: Civilian Killings and Impunity in Congo," and "Uncertain Course: Transition and Human Rights Violations in the Congo," published in October and December 1997 respectively, documented cases of detention, torture, and "disappearance" of individuals whom the government publicly accused of being "agents" for the SGIT or suspected of merely having spoken to outsiders about massacres they witnessed. We called on the international community to hold the government accountable for these practices as firmly as for the crimes they sought to cover up. The present arrests would appear to have the same objective.
We have, many times in the past, expressed to you our concern regarding both the DRC government's repeated obstructions of the two UN investigations as well as the UN's own firmness in pursuing the probe. We received with guarded optimism the news of the SGIT's redeployment to Mbandaka as of February 11, 1998, and continue to monitor the progress of its vital work through our colleagues on the ground. We are increasingly concerned, however, that the many delays, combined with the chilling effect of the recent
arrests, will make it difficult for the SGIT successfully to complete its investigation and determine responsibility for the incidents in question.
We strongly urge you to press the DRC government to immediately release any witnesses who may still be in custody, to abstain from any form of harassment of witnesses, to publicly urge citizens to cooperate fully with the SGIT, and to set an example by providing the team with all information it has on the allegations, including the names of the military commanders who took part in the operation in Mbandaka and similar operations under investigation, together with the full military chain-of-command. We also urge you to ask that the SGIT make public any similar incidents of harassment or detention of witnesses and establish clear mechanisms to guarantee their present and future safety.
Thanking you for your attention to this important matter, we have the honor to remain,
Peter Takirambudde Joanna Weschler
Executive Director for Africa UN Representative
cc: Mrs. Mary Robinson
Mr. Kieran Prendergast
Mr. Shashi Tharoor
Ms. Elisabeth Lindenmayer