Human Rights Watch strongly condemned today a government ban on one of Congo's oldest and most respected rights groups, the Association for the Defense of Human Rights (AZADHO).

On Friday April 3, the Congolese Minister of Justice appeared on national television and declared AZADHO illegal and ordered police to immediately close their offices throughout the country. The minister accused the organization of not registering with the government, receiving foreign funding, leading political activities, and keeping the letter "Z" in their acronym, a reference to the former Zaire.

"This attack on AZADHO is only the latest in a disturbing pattern of measures taken by the Congolese authorities to silence voices of those who defend democratic principles and human rights," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. In recent weeks, Congolese authorities have seized AZADHO's annual report on the human rights situation in Congo and summoned their vice-president for questioning about an AZADHO investigation into a recent massacre in eastern Congo.

Since 1991, AZADHO has documented thousands of cases of human rights violations committed by the former Mobutu regime and has been a consistent and leading voice for democracy and human rights in the former Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo. During the war which brought Congolese President Kabila to power, AZADHO also denounced civilian killings and human rights abuses by all sides, including those committed by Kabila's forces and their Rwandan allies. Several members of AZAHDO were forced into exile in May 1997, after having received death threats from both members of Mobutu's and Kabila's military. Human Rights Watch fears for the safety of members of AZADHO in Congo, several of whom are reportedly being sought by members of the National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale de renseignements, ANR).

Human Rights Watch is extremely concerned that the Congolese government's denial of basic rights, including a ban on political activity and limits on freedom of association and expression, will lead to a departure from peaceful methods and increase instability in Congo and the region.