(New York) - Human Rights Watch today sharply criticized the public beatings, detentions, and ill-treatment of at least thirteen leading human rights activists in the rebel-held town of Bukavu, Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The latest intimidation follows months of escalating violence and deaths in Eastern Congo, and comes on the heels of last week's visit to the region by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.
On October 9, soldiers of the rebel group Congolese Rally for Democracy (R.C.D.) broke up a meeting held by an umbrella group for human rights organizations in Bukavu. The rights groups were discussing follow-up activities to Robinson's recent visit.
According to an observer present at the meeting, Congolese and Rwandan soldiers made the members of the human rights groups "come out of the office one by one..., lie down and beat them publicly in front of a big crowd with sticks and fists." The rights activists were then taken to a military camp, known as Camp Saio, and released later that day.
"The ruling rebel force has shown once more its contempt for human rights, and particularly for those who are trying to protect human rights, including the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner," said Peter Takirambudde, Director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division. "This is especially galling in light of the U.N. commissioner's visit last week. The R.C.D. must stop terrorizing those who speak out peacefully."
Those arrested included Marcelin Musemakweli (CADDHOM), Muzalia Loochi (Justice pour Tous), François Maheshe and Michel Aissi (both Groupe Jérémie), Raphael Wakenge (Heritiers de la Justice), Venantie Bisimwa (RFDP), Mr. Mushagalusha (Cojeski), Baharanyi Bya Dunia (CEDAC), Jules Lwesso (Bucoie), Moïse Cifende (APRODEPED), Dunia Yogolelo (Pandendum), Mr. Kizingu (AED), Judge Emmanuel Shamavu (ACAT/Sud-Kivu).
Also arrested were Kiza Kamatando, Moro Tubibu, Nestor Bauma, Joli Yaya..The office of Groupe Jeremie, where the meeting took place, was ravaged. Soldiers took office materials, including a computer, and continue to guard the office at the time of this writing.
On the radio on October 9 and 10, the ruling R.C.D. also accused three human rights organizations working in South Kivu of fomenting unrest. The R.C.D. has targeted Héritiers de la Justice, Groupe Jérémie and Centre d'Etude de Documentation et d'Animation Civique (CEDAC).
Riots and disturbances have shaken Bukavu since Archbishop Kataliko's death on October 3. Although the Archbishop, a prominent critic of the R.C.D., died during a visit to Rome (reportedly of a heart attack), many in Eastern Congo believe that the R.C.D. is responsible for his death. The R.C.D. banished Kataliko from Bukavu in February to his home town, Butembo, in North Kivu because of his critical attitude towards the authorities, and only allowed him to return to Bukavu in mid-September.
The Archbishop's sudden death fueled the prevailing animosity toward the rebels and their supporters, the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army, and the local Congolese Tutsis known as the Banyamulenge. "We are extremely concerned about the use of ethnically charged language and incidents of attacks by the population on Banyamulenge and Tutsi individuals who are regarded as collaborators of the R.C.D. The authorities must take all possible steps to contain the violence, and react to violence with a minimum use of force," said Takirambudde.
With the news of Kataliko's death on October 4, greiving citizens took to the streets. During an incident at a trading center for precious minerals run by Rwandans, a Rwandan man came out and shot in the crowd, killing a boy and injuring a man. On October 8, when the dead body of the Archbishop arrived in Bukavu, the governor of South Kivu attempted to address the population but was attacked by demonstrators who threw stones at him. His guards fired shots in the air, accidentally injuring one person, but refrained from using direct violence against the demonstrators. The Archbishop's funeral, on October 10, took place without further major incidents.