(Kinshasa) - Congolese state security forces have killed an estimated 500 people and detained about 1,000 more, many of whom have been tortured, in the two years since elections that were meant to bring democracy, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The brutal repression against perceived opponents began during the 2006 elections that carried President Joseph Kabila to power, and has continued to the present.
The 96-page report, "‘We Will Crush You': The Restriction of Political Space in the Democratic Republic of Congo," documents the Kabila government's use of violence and intimidation to eliminate political opponents. Human Rights Watch found that Kabila himself set the tone and direction by giving orders to "crush" or "neutralize" the "enemies of democracy," implying it was acceptable to use unlawful force against them.
"While everyone focuses on the violence in eastern Congo, government abuses against political opponents attract little attention," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "Efforts to build a democratic Congo are being stifled not just by rebellion but also by the Kabila government's repression."
On the second anniversary of Kabila's November 28, 2006 election victory, the Congo remains impoverished and in conflict. Those in western Congo who might challenge government policies face brutal repression, while in the east the armed conflict with renegade general Laurent Nkunda's forces has resulted in horrific atrocities by all sides.
The report is based on months of extensive field research including interviews with more than 250 victims, witnesses, and officials. Human Rights Watch documented how Kabila's subordinates worked through several state security forces - including the paramilitary Republican Guards, a "secret commission," the special Simba battalion of the police, and the intelligence services - to crack down on perceived opponents in the capital Kinshasa and in Bas Congo province.
Following the 2006 elections, which were largely financed by international donors, foreign governments focused on winning favor with Kabila's new government and kept silent about human rights abuses and the government's increasingly repressive rule. United Nations reports documenting government involvement in politically motivated crimes were deliberately buried or published too late to have any significant impact on events, Human Rights Watch found.
The report says that state agents particularly targeted persons from Equateur province and others thought to support the defeated presidential candidate, Jean-Pierre Bemba, as well as adherents of Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK), a political-religious group based in Bas Congo that promotes greater provincial autonomy and had considerable support in legislative elections.
At least 500 perceived opponents of the government were deliberately killed or summarily executed. In some of the most violent episodes, state agents tried to cover up the crimes by dumping bodies in the Congo River or by secretly burying them in mass graves. Government officials blocked efforts to investigate by UN human rights staff, Congolese and international human rights monitors, and family members of victims.
The detentions came in waves of arrests during the past two years. Detainees and former detainees described torture, including beatings, whippings, mock executions, and the use of electric batons on their genitals and other parts of their bodies. Some were kept chained for days or weeks and many were forced to sign confessions saying they had been involved in coup plots against Kabila.
In mid-October 2008, state agents arbitrarily arrested at least 20 people in Kinshasa, the majority from Equateur province, including a woman and her 3-month-old baby. Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 200 people detained in politically related cases continue to be held without trial in prisons in Bas Congo and Kinshasa.
Armed groups associated with Bemba and BDK adherents also were responsible for killing state agents and ordinary people, including in incidents in Bas Congo in February 2007 and in Kinshasa in March 2007. In these cases, the police and army had a duty to restore order, but often did so with excessive force.
Congolese officials have refused to acknowledge abuses committed by state agents despite inquiries by the National Assembly, the media, and other citizens or groups. The officials claimed that the victims were plotting coup attempts or otherwise threatening state authority, but they provided no convincing evidence of such charges and brought only a handful of cases to court.
Journalists who were linked to the political opposition or who protested abuses were threatened, arbitrarily arrested, and in some cases tortured by government agents. The government closed down radio stations and television networks that were linked to the opposition or broadcast their views. Several of these stations were later permitted to operate again.
The National Assembly has tried to scrutinize the conduct of the government. Opposition members sometimes boycotted sessions in protest of the abuses, with some limited impact. However, these efforts have not been enough to stop the killings or the wide-scale arbitrary arrests.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to establish a high-level task force under the authority of the Ministry of Justice with input from human rights experts to document the abuses by state agents and release those held illegally. It also called on Congo's National Assembly to conduct a public inquiry into the abuses by state security agents and to prosecute those responsible.
"The Congolese people deserve a government which will uphold their democratic rights, not one that represses opponents," said Van Woudenberg. "An important first step would be to bring to justice those officials responsible for killings and torture."
Selected accounts from the report:
"As they beat me with sticks and whips, the soldiers repeatedly shouted, ‘We will crush you! We will crush you!' Then they threatened to kill me and others who opposed Kabila."
- A political party activist detained and tortured in Kinshasa in March 2007 by President Kabila's Republican Guards.
"At 3 in the morning seven Republican Guards came into the prison. They took 10 of the prisoners, tied their hands, blindfolded them, and taped pieces of cardboard over their mouths so they couldn't scream. The captain who did this said he had received orders. He said he would drink the blood of Equateurians that night. They took them away.... I knew one of the guards and asked what had happened. He said the others had been taken to the [Congo] river near Kinsuka and killed."
- A Congolese army officer from the Ngwaka ethnic group, arrested by the Republican Guard on March 23, 2007 and detained at Camp Tshatshi.
"They started to hit me. They stripped off my clothes. They took four sets of handcuffs and tied my hands behind me and then to my feet. I was thrown on the ground in this position... They gave me electric shocks all over my body. They put the electric baton in my anus and on my genitals.... I cried so much that I could hardly see any more. I shouted I would sign whatever they wanted me to."
- A former detainee held at Kin-Mazière prison on the orders of the "secret commission."
"Kabila took a decision to beat-up on Bemba and to teach him a lesson."
- A member of Kabila's inner circle just before violence in Kinshasa in August 2006 following the inconclusive first election round.
"We all saw this coming, but again we did not do enough to avert the crisis."
- A European military advisor with close links to the Congolese army about the March 2007 violence in Kinshasa that left hundreds dead.
"You JED who do you think you are? If you don't agree with the regime, go into exile and wait until your champion takes power. If you don't leave we'll help to shut you up for good. We won't miss. Too much is too much. You have been warned."
- A threat received by the local organization Journalists in Danger (JED) in June 2007 after they raised concerns about repression against members of the media.