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(Kinshasa) – Democratic Republic of Congo authorities should fully and impartially investigate threats and violence against Virunga National Park rangers and local activists, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should examine whether the incidents are linked to plans to explore for oil within and near Virunga Park by SOCO International, a British oil company operating in eastern Congo.

Several rangers and activists have been arbitrarily detained by the authorities and threatened or assaulted by unidentified people after criticizing plans for oil exploration in Virunga, a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to many of the last surviving mountain gorillas. On April 15, 2014, armed men shot and seriously wounded the park’s director, Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian national. Congolese military justice officials and police have opened an investigation into the attack.

“The attack on the national park’s director was a painful and shocking reminder that people working to protect Africa’s oldest park – its habitat, wildlife, and local communities – do so at enormous risk,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Congolese authorities need to make sure that those responsible for this attack and others are arrested and prosecuted.”

The Belgian federal prosecutor should also consider opening an investigation into the attack on the basis that de Mérode is a Belgian national. The Belgian and Congolese judicial authorities could join efforts to strengthen the investigation.

De Mérode and other park rangers, activists, and local community members have long criticized proposed oil exploration and drilling in the park, which they contend will have a negative impact on the park, its wildlife, and local communities. SOCO International signed a production-sharing contract with the Congolese government in 2006 to explore for oil within and near Virunga Park. In October 2011, SOCO received a permit to explore for oil in Block V, a vast area in eastern Congo, of which 52 percent lies within Virunga Park, next to the endangered gorilla habitat.

De Mérode and other rangers have asserted that SOCO’s activities in the park violate Congolese and international law, which, as government officials, the rangers say they have a duty to uphold. Other Congolese government officials in Kinshasa and eastern Congo support SOCO’s plans, given the potentially large financial gains oil would bring.

SOCO has denied any role in threats, violence, or bribery, but has said it will look into allegations of bribery, and condemned the use of violence and intimidation.

In the week following the attack on de Mérode, at least three human rights and environmental activists received threatening text messages from unidentified numbers, Human Rights Watch said. One message said:

You are playing with fire [name of activist], you are going to burn your second leg, it’s useless to change your car because we know all the cars and we’re everywhere you go with your team. Don’t believe that just because we failed to get your director that we are going to fail to get you.

Another message said: “You think that by writing you’re going to prevent us from extracting oil. You are going to die for nothing like de Mérode.”

On May 3, 2014, an environmental activist in Goma received three calls from an unknown number. The caller threatened the activist, saying that they “wanted the head” of a staff member of the organization who, the caller said, had bad-mouthed their interests. The caller said: “We failed to get de Mérode, but we won’t fail to get [name of staff].” They told the employee that if he told anyone about the calls, he would be “dealt with.”

“Park rangers and activists should be able to oppose oil exploration in Virunga Park without risking their lives,” Sawyer said. “Congolese authorities need to take steps immediately to make sure that people are safe when they try to uphold the law, protect the park, and peacefully express their views.”

Victims of abuses and witnesses to these incidents allege that Congolese government, military, and intelligence officials who support oil exploration in the park were responsible for previous threats and acts of violence against activists and park staff.

Activists and park rangers alleged that SOCO representatives and security contractors attempted to bribe them to gain their support or to discourage them from speaking out against oil exploration in the park and to facilitate the company’s activities in the park. One environmental activist alleged that SOCO representatives offered him US$20,000 and told him he would be able to hire five people to work for him if he accepted the money.

An investigation by park authorities found that a SOCO representative paid a senior park official several thousand dollars over several months to support SOCO’s activities. The official participated in meetings with park rangers at which they were told that they would be fired if they did not support SOCO. Findings from this investigation, which lasted over three years, were submitted to a Congolese prosecutor in Goma on April 15, hours before the attack on de Mérode.

In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on May 23, North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku acknowledged that certain government and security officials seem to have been “manipulated.” He said that he did not know who was manipulating them, but that it appeared they had been paid and “instrumentalized” to support oil exploration. He said there had been numerous allegations about threats and assaults against activists and park rangers opposed to oil exploration, and that he had asked the police and military justice officials to investigate.

In a May 30 response to a letter from Human Rights Watch regarding allegations that SOCO representatives were involved in bribery, SOCO’s Deputy Chief Executive Roger Cagle wrote:

There have been a substantial number of false and inaccurate allegations levelled against SOCO International plc in recent years and particularly in the last month. Sadly, a number of these allegations have arisen as a result of inaccurate, false, distorted and/or exaggerated accounts of our activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the ‘DRC’). It also increasingly seems to be the case that anyone engaging in alleged questionable and unethical conduct are immediately branded ‘SOCO representatives’ and ‘SOCO supporters’ even when they simply are not and have nothing to do with our company. …

We operate on a strict Code of Business Conduct and Ethics (our “Code”). …We are fully committed to conducting our business in an honest and ethical manner and we expect and require that our contractors, suppliers and agents will conduct themselves in the same manner. Moreover, the Company operates in accordance with the UK Bribery Act 2010 and as part of our required Bribery Risk Governance, we have a formal process to mitigate risks of corruption.

Regarding the specific allegations of bribery raised by Human Rights Watch, Cagle wrote that company officials “have no information as to whether or not the incidents actually took place, and if so, what happened. However, based on the information available, we have instigated the procedures in our code.”

SOCO should act in accordance with the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, international guidelines that place responsibilities on companies to take specific steps to safeguard rights whenever they rely on public or private security forces to guard their operations, Human Rights Watch said. In addition, the company should adhere to the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which call on all companies to identify any possible human rights risks in their operations and address any problems that might occur.

Human Rights Watch urged the British government to investigate SOCO’s activities in eastern Congo under the United Kingdom’s Bribery Act. Any inquiry should examine alleged acts of corruption or bribery that may have led to attacks and threats against park rangers and activists at Virunga Park.

“The allegations that SOCO representatives offered bribes in the volatile climate in Virunga Park should be taken seriously,” Sawyer said. “SOCO should investigate their representatives, agents, and contractors and make sure that none are involved in harassment of activists and park personnel.”

Attack on Park Director de Mérode
Emmanuel de Mérode was driving alone in the park about 10 kilometers from the Virunga Park headquarters in Rumangabo in an area that is controlled by the Congolese army, when at least three men in military uniform fired at him. He was in a staff vehicle of the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature, ICCN), a Congolese government institution that oversees national parks. A civilian on a motorcycle later found de Mérode on the road and drove him toward Goma. He was then transferred to two Congolese army vehicles and an ICCN vehicle before reaching the hospital in Goma, where he was treated for bullet wounds to his chest and abdomen.

The Congolese army has a position 500 meters off the main road from where de Mérode was attacked and usually has soldiers posted along the road. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda, FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group, some of whose members participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, have also operated in this area in the past. The FDLR are active across eastern Congo and are involved in lucrative, illegal charcoal trading in Virunga Park – a practice that de Mérode and other park rangers have sought to stop.

Arrest and Intimidation of Virunga Park Central Sector Chief
On September 19, 2013, army soldiers and intelligence officials arrested the warden of Virunga Park’s central sector, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo. He had attempted to stop the construction of a telephone antenna in the park because, he said, the SOCO officials who financed the construction did not have the authorization required by Congolese law to build in the park.

Katembo told Human Rights Watch that on September 3, Dr. Guy Mbayma Atalia, the technical and scientific director for the ICCN and the agency’s focal point with SOCO at the time, had warned him that if he continued to oppose SOCO’s activities in the park, he would be killed. In an interview with Human Rights Watch on April 23, 2014, Mbayma denied this allegation and said he had nothing to do with Katembo’s arrest.

Katembo said that soldiers arrested him in Kanyabayonga, North Kivu, where he had been visiting family, and severely beat him and his younger brother. They told Katembo he was against the government because he did not want SOCO in the park.

“What hurt me the most was how they tortured my young brother in front of me,” Katembo told Human Rights Watch. “I said, ‘What did he do? He’s not even in the ICCN.’ I was crying, and they had tied me up so I couldn’t do anything.”

The soldiers took Katembo to Rwindi, where they further humiliated him, paraded him in front of his home, and burned cigarettes on his head. He was then detained at the provincial headquarters of the National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR) in Goma and released on October 7, 2013, after international pressure.

Katembo told Human Rights Watch that officials involved in his arrest and ill-treatment told him that they had been promised money to kill him, rather than arrest him. Katembo said he also learned that intelligence officials had told prisoners that they would pay them if they beat him to death while he was in detention. Officials privately informed Katembo and his family about other plans to ambush or kill him.

After his release, Katembo was told to report to the intelligence agency daily and pay 5,000 Congolese francs (about US$5.50) every day. Several months later, a sympathetic intelligence agent warned him that there were plans to kill him in Goma, and he was advised to leave the city.

The North Kivu provincial director of the intelligence agency at the time, Jean-Marc Banza, told Human Rights Watch on April 17, 2014, that Katembo was “detained legally” because he had insulted the country’s president, Joseph Kabila. Banza denied allegations of mistreatment by the security forces.

Threats Against Activists
In many of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, Congolese government, military, and intelligence officials were implicated in the threats and attacks on human rights and environmental activists and other community leaders. Some had allegedly received money from SOCO.

On January 31, 2014, a local farmers’ cooperative in Rutshuru organized a march of over 300 people opposing SOCO’s activities. The cooperative had informed local authorities about the demonstration in advance, as Congolese law requires. Soon after the march began, policemen went to the cooperative’s office, confiscated a computer and other materials, and tore down a banner that said: “No exploitation of oil in our fields and our lake.” The police detained and beat some of the demonstrators and later released them.

During a public meeting on February 19 in Nyakakoma, a fishing village on Lake Edward in Rutshuru territory, SOCO representatives told residents that exploration work could cause parts of the lake to be closed to fishing for up to three months. The closure could affect 80,000 people whose livelihoods depend on the lake, according to community leaders. A local fisherman and environmental activist voiced his concern at the meeting, questioning how residents would support themselves during this time.

On February 26, the activist received a letter from the National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR), asking him to come to their office in Rutshuru. He told Human Rights Watch that when he went to their office on March 3, “They told me I was behaving badly, and they said it was a matter of the state. I shouldn’t act like a hero, and I risk having my head cut off.” The activist was released after paying the intelligence official $20.

On April 2, another public meeting was held in Nyakakoma, with SOCO representatives, government officials, and residents. After residents protested SOCO’s plans to close parts of the lake during seismic testing, people who were at the meeting later told Human Rights Watch that the Rutshuru territorial administrator, Justin Mukanya, had said that SOCO’s plans for oil exploration would go forward: “The train has already left,” he said. “Whoever wants to try to stop the train will be crushed.”

Several human rights activists who opposed SOCO’s activities in the park told Human Rights Watch that, for the past three years, they had received threatening text messages and phone calls. Following are some examples of these messages, in addition to the more recent cases mentioned above:

  • On February 26, 2011, two human rights activists received the following text message: “Leave our oil alone. If you continue, you will suffer the same fate as the park.” On the same night, three unidentified men went to the home of one of the activists in Goma; he was not home at the time. Two days later, the activist received the following message: “If you continue to talk about oil, you will see. Watch out.”
  • On April 24, 2011, three activists received calls from an unidentified person who asked them to come to the executive provincial government office. When they arrived, they were asked to sign a document saying that they had attended a meeting with SOCO on August 13, 2010. The three activists refused to sign. Three days later, one of them received the following message: “You refused to sign. You are arrogant. We’ve already identified your residence.”
  • On May 7, 2011, another activist received a phone call as he was leaving an Internet café in Goma. The caller, who did not identify himself, said: “You think you are hidden, but we can see you. You just stopped a bus. You thought that we didn’t know you but we’re following you.”
  • On February 27, 2012, three intelligence agents went to the same activist’s house in Goma and told his wife he was “inciting the population about things the head of state has already decided. If he continues, he will lose his life.” The activist had already been threatened multiple times by phone and had been summoned to court after he sent a letter to government authorities detailing the behavior of a government security agent in Nyakakoma who claimed he was in charge of “security and mobilization for SOCO.”
  • In December 2013, a fisherman told Human Rights Watch that he had been harassed by the Naval Force after rowing his boat in front of the SOCO office. He was summoned to the office of a major in the Naval Force. There he was accused of spying and taking pictures of the SOCO office. The fisherman asked the major, “On what legal basis are you accusing me of this?” The major allegedly replied: “You come here with your human rights. Here, we don’t do the law. We do the army.” The major seized the fisherman’s camera but did not find any pictures of the SOCO office, and released him after two hours.

After several human rights activists publicly denounced threats and intimidation by agents working on behalf of SOCO, Mbayma, the ICCN’s focal point with SOCO at the time, wrote a letter, seen by Human Rights Watch, to the ICCN director general in early 2014, in which he accused the activists of inciting the population against the government:

From the moment that these structures pride themselves with the freedom to stand up against the sovereign State that is the DRC and to call the peaceful population to civil disobedience, there is good reason for the Director General of the ICCN to take adequate preventative measures. These should take the path of suspending all collaboration, be it direct or indirect, with these NGOs. Otherwise, the ICCN risks being qualified as an accomplice to these NGOs in their proven attempt to break up the authority of the state for the purposes, perhaps, of creating new armed groups.

In a letter to the president of North Kivu’s Provincial Assembly, dated May 13, 2014, and on file at Human Rights Watch, the ICCN director general said that Mbayma had been removed from his position as technical and scientific director, that he was no longer the ICCN focal point with SOCO, and that he no was no longer authorized to speak on behalf of the ICCN.

Allegations Against SOCO International
In December 2010, a Congolese court in Goma authorized park authorities to investigate allegations of illegal activities by SOCO International, including unauthorized entry into the park by vehicle and plane, unauthorized construction in the park, and attempts to bribe and harass park staff and members of the Congolese security forces.

As part of the investigation, a park warden secretly filmed a security officer linked to SOCO and the Congolese army’s liaison officer with SOCO as they offered the warden money. The warden told Human Rights Watch that he refused an offer of “a large stack of cash” to allow SOCO representatives to move freely within the park. Several months later, the same warden said he was offered $50 up front and then $3,000 at the end of every month if he agreed to give SOCO information about the zone where they wanted to enter the park, and to allow them free movement in the park without informing the warden’s supervisor, de Mérode.

Another park warden told Human Rights Watch that Mbayma had instructed him to come to Nyakakoma village with five park guards to work with him at SOCO’s camp. “We were each paid $20 a day for 35 days,” the warden said. “Their objective was for us to go with them to meetings with the population in order to convince the population to support SOCO’s activities and to try to show they had the full support of the ICCN.” The warden said they were paid by Mbayma in the presence of a SOCO agent. He said that Mbayma warned him that if he informed his direct supervisor about what they were doing, “it will fall on your head, and you will be arrested.”

When the warden eventually refused to work with Mbayma and returned to his base, he received at least four threatening calls from Mbayma between November 2013 and February 2014, trying to convince him to work with them again. Mbayma warned him that if he refused to join, he would lose his career with the ICCN and be arrested.

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