(Kinshasa) – Democratic Republic of Congo authorities should immediately provide information on the whereabouts of and any charges against human rights activist Christopher Ngoyi Mutamba, Human Rights Watch said today. Ngoyi is feared to have been forcibly disappeared since his arrest on January 21, 2015.
A senior intelligence official told Human Rights Watch on January 26 that he was in the custody of Congo’s national intelligence agency, but authorities have not revealed where he is being detained or allowed him access to his family or a lawyer. The authorities should release him immediately unless he is charged with a credible offense.
“Each day adds to the concern for the safety of the activist Christopher Ngoyi,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Congolese authorities should immediately and publicly account for his whereabouts and free him if he has been detained unlawfully or for political reasons.”
Ngoyi, 55, the president of the human rights organization Synergie Congo Culture et Développement (Congo Culture and Development Synergy), was involved in mobilizing public participation in demonstrations against proposed changes to the electoral law, on January 12 and during the week of January 19, in the capital, Kinshasa.
On January 21, at about 8 p.m., several men, some wearing military police uniforms, accosted Ngoyi while he was meeting with colleagues at an outdoor bar in Kinshasa’s Kalamu commune. They forced him into an unmarked white jeep and drove off.
Earlier that day, Ngoyi was part of a delegation of human rights activists and opposition party leaders, including members of parliament, who visited Kinshasa’s General Hospital to provide support to demonstrators injured during the protests. Just after the delegation left the hospital, soldiers from the Republican Guard presidential security detail entered the hospital and fired indiscriminately, wounding three visitors.
The morning after Ngoyi’s arrest, a jeep carrying men in military police uniform was stationed outside Ngoyi’s house in Kinshasa’s Barumbu commune at about 4 a.m. At about 5:30 a.m., a half-dozen men in civilian clothes came into his house and showed members of his family a search warrant. They then searched the house and took some of Ngoyi’s documents. They told Ngoyi’s family that Ngoyi was being held at the military prosecutor’s office in Gombe district.
Ngoyi’s family members and colleagues visited the Gombe military prosecutor’s office, as well as the other official jails and prisons in Kinshasa, but they were unable to locate him. Authorities told them he was not being held in these detention facilities. Congolese human rights activists have expressed concern for Ngoyi’s life and physical safety.
On January 26, the director general of the National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignement, ANR), Kalev Mutond, told Human Rights Watch that Ngoyi is being held by the ANR, but he did not provide further details about the reason for his arrest or the location of detention.
Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by government officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Congo is a party, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution.
“The government should immediately tell Ngoyi’s family where he is and why he is being held,” Sawyer said. “Authorities should also ensure he is not tortured or otherwise ill-treated, and that he has access to a lawyer, food, and medical care.”
Ngoyi is the national coordinator of a network of Congolese civil society organizations. He is also co-founder of Sauvons le Congo (Save the Congo), a coalition of political parties and civil society groups established in 2014 to oppose proposed changes to the constitution, some of which would allow President Joseph Kabila to stay in office beyond the two-term limit set out in the constitution.
On January 17, Congo’s National Assembly adopted modifications to the electoral law that would require a national census ahead of the next election and could thereby significantly delay presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2016. Such a delay would have permitted President Kabila to extend his term in office.
On January 23, following a week of public protests in Kinshasa and other cities that turned violent after police crackdowns, the Senate adopted an amended version of the law, clarifying that elections would not be conditional on the completion of a census and that the constitution’s electoral timeframe would be respected. On January 25 the National Assembly adopted a version of the law that did not require a national census to be completed before elections. The National Assembly president, Aubin Minaku, said after the vote that members of parliament had listened to the people who elected them.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed that at least 36 people were killed during the demonstrations in Kinshasa, including at least 21 fatally shot by police and Republican Guard soldiers using unnecessary or excessive lethal force. Human Rights Watch is investigating the exact circumstances of the other deaths as well as credible reports of additional killings. Human Rights Watch is interviewing witnesses, family members of victims, and hospital employees, and visiting hospitals and locations in Kinshasa where demonstrations took place.
Authorities also arbitrarily arrested several opposition leaders in connection with the protests.
“The authorities’ handling of the Ngoyi case is deeply concerning,” Sawyer said. “It sends a troubling signal that the government is seeking to clamp down on political dissent and human rights activism more broadly.”