Youth activists in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, call for the release of their colleagues detained in the capital, Kinshasa, on March 18.

© 2015 Alexis Bouvy

(Kinshasa) – Democratic Republic of Congo authorities should immediately release seven peaceful activists who have been wrongfully detained, some since March 15, 2015. Security forces in the eastern city of Goma beat and otherwise mistreated demonstrators protesting government repression, including with water torture.

Congo’s national intelligence agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR) arrested about 30 pro-democracy activists and others on March 15 in Kinshasa, the capital, following a workshop on Filimbi, a movement to promote responsible youth engagement in the democratic process. Another Filimbi activist was arrested on March 16. Three remain in detention without charge or access to legal counsel and without being brought before a judicial official. Police in Goma on April 7 arrested four others who were peacefully protesting the Kinshasa arrests. They are in Goma’s central prison on charges of inciting disobedience to public authority.

Since April 11, several employees of Rawbank have been arrested or called in for questioning at the ANR, including those who had set up and managed a bank account for Filimbi. At least one remains in detention.

“It’s unacceptable for Congolese authorities to arrest peaceful demonstrators and to beat or torture those protesting the government’s repressive actions,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should immediately release the seven activists or charge them with a credible offense and investigate allegations of mistreatment.”

The arrests are part of a worsening crackdown on freedom of expression and assembly in advance of Congo’s 2016 national elections, Human Rights Watch said.

The three detained in Kinshasa are Fred Bauma, a leader of the Goma-based movement Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le Changement, LUCHA); Yves Makwambala, a webmaster and graphic artist; and Sylvain Saluseke, a businessman and activist. All were held incommunicado for two weeks before family members were allowed to visit, beginning March 30. The four detained in Goma are Trésor Akili, Gentil Muluma, Vincent Kasereka, and Sylvain Kambere.

The director-general of the intelligence agency, Kalev Mutondo, told Human Rights Watch on April 10 that the three detainees in Kinshasa were being held as part of a “security investigation,” not a “judicial investigation,” presumably to permit their detention without the protections given criminal suspects. He said he had sent a request to the public prosecutor’s office to keep holding them. Congo’s national prosecutor told Human Rights Watch on April 13 that he was not aware of such a request.

Congolese law requires that all detainees be brought before a judicial official within 48 hours of their arrest. Congolese law and international human rights treaties ratified by Congo prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and ensure all detainees the right to access to a lawyer and family visits. The government should investigate and discipline or prosecute as appropriate those involved in the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of the activists, Human Rights Watch said.

On March 27, Congo’s National Assembly set up a commission to gather information and report on the arrests. The commission is due to present its findings in the coming days.

The arrests appear related to the broader political tensions in Congo ahead of the country’s 2016 presidential elections. Under Congo’s constitution, a president may only serve two consecutive terms. President Joseph Kabila’s second term will end in 2016. In recent months, political leaders close to Kabila have proposed changes to the constitution that would allow the president to run for a third term, as well as changes to the electoral law that would require a potentially lengthy census before presidential elections, effectively extending Kabila’s term. Over a dozen senior political party leaders and activists have been arrested after speaking out against these proposed changes. In January, at least 40 people were killed when security forces brutally repressed demonstrations in Kinshasa and Goma to protest proposed changes to the electoral law.

“Everyone is entitled to engage in peaceful activities to promote the democratic process or to oppose government actions,” Sawyer said. “Congolese authorities should quickly reverse the repressive trend that is diverting Congo from the path toward credible elections.”

For further information on the arrests of the pro-democracy activists in Kinshasa and Goma, and on the abuse of protesters, please see below.

Kinshasa Arrests
Those arrested at the end of the Filimbi workshop in Kinshasa on March 15, 2015, included Congolese and French journalists, a United States diplomat, the French owner of the music and video company where the press conference was held, three Senegalese activists from the organization Y’En A Marre, one Burkinabe activist from the organization Balai Citoyen, and numerous Congolese activists, musicians, artists, technicians, and bystanders. They were arrested by men in military police uniforms and others in civilian clothes, and taken directly to the ANR headquarters.

The authorities released all the non-African nationals and a Congolese journalist that evening. Another Congolese journalist was released on March 17. During a news conference on March 18, Congo’s communications minister, Lambert Mende, said that the West African activists were part of a “subversive movement inspired from abroad” and were preparing “violent acts” in Congo. The Senegalese and Burkinabe activists were then released, declared “persona non grata,” and expelled from the country. A group of Congolese musicians was released on March 19, and a Congolese documentary filmmaker was released on March 27.

One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that intelligence officials had warned him not to speak to journalists, human rights activists, or others about his arrest, and that he was ordered to report to the ANR every 48 hours.

On March 16, Sylvain Saluseke, a Filimbi leader who had not been arrested the day before, was called to a meeting at the ANR and detained. Other Filimbi leaders have since gone into hiding, fearing arrest. Security officials searched the home of one of these leaders without a valid search warrant and threatened the employer of another, urging him to end the activist’s contract.

On April 4, men in civilian clothes arrested Francis Omekongo, a Congolese artist who had won a competition to design Filimbi’s logo, at his workplace and held him at an ANR detention center until April 7. The logo depicts a whistle and a hand holding a “red card,” the penalty a referee gives a soccer player when sending him off the field. Filimbi leaders said the logo represents the people’s right to hold their government to account and to “blow the whistle” over human rights violations or government misconduct.

Arrest and Ill-treatment of Activists in Goma
On March 17, as LUCHA activists protested in front of the ANR office in Goma, calling for the release of their colleague Bauma in Kinshasa, intelligence officials rounded up 11 protesters, slapping and hitting them as they took them into the ANR office. They threw to the ground and kicked a Belgian researcher who was watching the demonstration. She was later hospitalized. They also roughed up a Belgian journalist and briefly detained and questioned him.

The ANR officials ordered the 11 activists to sit on the ground. When they locked arms and started singing the Congolese national anthem, the officials kicked and slapped the protesters again. They forced one 26-year-old activist to roll in the mud and lie under an outdoor faucet. An ANR agent opened the tap and water poured into his mouth and eyes for about 10 minutes – a form of near-drowning that amounts to torture.

The activist told Human Rights Watch:

He asked me to lie down on my back in the mud just under the faucet. He then told me to open my mouth and eyes and look up. He opened the tap with all the pressure of the water from there, and all that water went into my mouth and eyes. I didn’t know what to do. I started to shake. I couldn’t close my eyes or mouth. I thought I was drowning. I couldn’t breathe. I was sure I was going to die there.

ANR officials forced at least four protesters to lie down and stare into the sun, and ordered one to do 100 push-ups in mud and gravel. An ANR agent stood on his heels and beat him with branches when he couldn’t complete the push-ups.

ANR officials interrogated protesters individually and took their statements. They accused some of belonging to a rebel movement or armed group. Others were accused of belonging to a militia that the ANR agents said had killed one of their agents that morning in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu province. The 11 were released that evening.

When a lawyer went to the ANR office in Goma on March 17 to see one of the detainees, the ANR officials refused him access. That evening, unidentified men attacked the lawyer on the street near Goma’s main hospital, punching, kicking, and beating him with a stick. He later told Human Rights Watch that one of them had said: “You know how to write and speak too much. We are going to seal your mouth with Super Glue. We are going to see if you are going to walk tomorrow.” The lawyer was hospitalized because of his injuries.

On March 21, LUCHA members received three threatening messages on a cellphone they shared. One of the messages said: “Do you know you are running a risk? Do you know what you are doing?” That evening, another LUCHA activist received a phone call from an unidentified man, who said: “It’s you guys who are putting up the posters to make people rise up. We already know who you are. We are going to clamp down on you.”

A 28-year-old LUCHA activist was walking home that evening in Goma’s Katoyi neighborhood when three men assaulted him and forced him into a car. They made him lie down on the floor while they drove around Goma for 30 to 40 minutes. When they arrived at an unknown destination, a man put a sack over the activist’s head and led him to an empty room, where they left him.

On March 23, a man in civilian clothes with a pistol questioned him about his links to the Senegalese group Y’En A Marre, and asked him to identify all the LUCHA members whose names were in his cellphone. He said the man told him: “We can massacre you whenever we want. We can make sure all the evidence is covered up.” They freed him on March 24.

On April 7, between 15 and 20 LUCHA members handed out flyers on a main road in Goma and were preparing to blow whistles and make noise to call attention to the detained activists in Kinshasa. Police arrived in a jeep, beat four LUCHA members with truncheons and slapped them, then drove them to a police station where they were beaten again. The next morning, police arrested another LUCHA member, Pascal Byumanine, when he attempted to bring the detainees food. The police released him that afternoon, after United Nations human rights officials intervened.

The other four were charged with inciting disobedience to public authority, and were transferred to Goma’s central prison.

Under Congolese law, those who want to hold a public demonstration are required to inform authorities 72 hours in advance. If the authorities do not respond, they have the right to demonstrate. A LUCHA member told Human Rights Watch she had submitted a letter to the mayor’s office on March 17 saying the group planned to hold demonstrations until Bauma was released.