Mass gravesite on the edge of the Fula-Fula cemetery in Maluku, on the outskirts of Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where government officials say 421 bodies were buried during the early morning hours of March 19, 2015.

(Kinshasa) – Democratic Republic of Congo authorities should promptly and properly exhume a mass grave that may contain the bodies of people forcibly disappeared or executed by Congolese security forces, Human Rights Watch said today. On June 5, 2015, the families of 34 victims filed a public complaint with Congo’s national prosecutor requesting justice and the exhumation of the mass grave in Maluku, a rural area about 80 kilometers from the capital, Kinshasa.

Local residents, opposition leaders, the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo (MONUSCO), and human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have raised concerns about a March 19 nighttime mass burial, in which government security forces participated, on the edge of Maluku’s Fula-Fula cemetery. The government has neither exhumed the gravesite nor revealed the identities of those buried there.

“Two months since the discovery of the mass grave in Maluku, Congolese authorities have yet to provide clarity about who is buried there,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Families of victims of human rights abuses have a right to know if their loved ones are among those buried in the grave.”

The authorities should immediately conduct a proper exhumation with the assistance of international experts, Human Rights Watch said. Foreign governments and the UN should support the investigation, including by providing forensics experts to help exhume the bodies and conduct DNA testing.

The unusual circumstances of the burial heighten concerns that the cemetery is being used to hide victims of government abuses, Human Rights Watch said. A woman from Maluku told Human Rights Watch that at about 2 a.m. on March 19, as she was walking home from a night vigil at her church, she saw a large dump truck enter the Fula-Fula cemetery. She said that more than a dozen men in military uniform were in the truck, as well as some in civilian clothes, and that a large white tarpaulin covered the truck’s contents.

A man who has a farm next to the cemetery said that at about 5 a.m. on March 19 he saw a large dump truck and people shoveling soil at the edge of the cemetery. When returning to his home that morning, men he believed were intelligence officers stopped him and asked him what he had seen at the cemetery. In the days and weeks that followed, unidentified men came to his home on at least four occasions and later came to his workplace and accused him of having “divulged the secret” about the mass grave. In early April, he received a call from an unidentified man who said: “You, just wait. You’re going to die.”

The discovery of the mass grave came in the context of increasing political tensions and a worsening crackdown on activists, political leaders, and others who have opposed attempts to allow Congo’s President Joseph Kabila to stay in power beyond late 2016, when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit ends.

On April 3, Evariste Boshab, Congo’s vice prime minister and interior minister, announced during a meeting with other senior government and security officials, Human Rights Watch, a MONUSCO representative, and Congolese journalists, that 421 bodies had been buried in a mass grave. He said the burial was a “normal procedure” and that the bodies included indigents whose families could not afford burial, unidentified bodies, and stillborn babies.

But Congolese Red Cross officials and hospital and morgue employees told Human Rights Watch the burial was not normal procedure. They said it is common practice for stillborn babies to be buried within a day or two, often in designated areas in hospital grounds, or by the families themselves in cemeteries. Indigents and unidentified bodies are usually buried during the day in low-cost caskets in a dignified burial in one of Kinshasa’s cemeteries, if no one claims the body following a public announcement.

Boshab said in the meeting that if there were any doubts about who was buried in the site, the bodies would be exhumed. Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, also present at the meeting, echoed Boshab’s commitment to exhume the bodies if there were any remaining doubts.

Ghislain Mwehu Kahozi, a public prosecutor who is leading a judicial investigation into the mass grave, told Human Rights Watch on May 11 that 12 families of people allegedly killed or forcibly disappeared by security forces in 2013 and 2014 had filed individual legal complaints calling for an exhumation of the bodies. He said his team was working to confirm the allegations before making a decision.

The prosecutor said the site was well protected. However, Human Rights Watch visited the site on the afternoon of May 11, and found the area deserted and unguarded. The site was marked off with rudimentary wooden fencing and police tape, unlikely to deter anyone intent on tampering with evidence.

“The growing number of legal complaints from family members whose loved ones have disappeared highlights the urgency of exhuming the mass grave,” Sawyer said. “The Congolese government should make good on its promise to exhume the bodies and properly protect the grave until that occurs.”

The suspicious death of a nurse in charge of one of Kinshasa’s morgues on the night of the mass burial raises further concerns, Human Rights Watch said. On the evening of March 18, Claude Kakese, who had studied forensics and was in charge of the morgue at Clinique Ngaliema, one of Kinshasa’s main hospitals, died in suspicious circumstances in a purported traffic accident a few kilometers past Ndjili airport, on the road to Maluku. One of his colleagues told Human Rights Watch that Kakese had a reputation for providing accurate information about the cause of death of bodies brought to the morgues in Kinshasa. His family believes his death was linked to the mass burial at Maluku.

The following day, a local TV station reported that Kakese had died in a drunk driving accident with a whiskey bottle found in his car. A witness who arrived at the scene shortly after the accident told Human Rights Watch that Republican Guard soldiers surrounded Kakese’s car and there were no alcohol bottles. The witness said that the soldiers gave contradictory stories of what caused the accident. The witness saw Kakese’s body lying across the two front seats with what looked like a bullet wound under his chin. Kakese’s family members said they saw a similar wound when they saw his body at the morgue.

Congolese authorities should carry out an independent, impartial investigation into the circumstances of Kakese’s death and prosecute anyone who may bear responsibility, Human Rights Watch said.

The families who submitted the joint complaint on June 5 included families of victims who were summarily executed or forcibly disappeared by security forces during demonstrations in Kinshasa in January 2015 to protest proposed changes to Congo’s electoral law. Others who signed the joint complaint were families of victims summarily executed or forcibly disappeared during “Operation Likofi,” an abusive police campaign in Kinshasa to tackle organized criminal gangs from November 2013 to February 2014.

“The political climate in Congo ahead of the 2016 elections is becoming increasingly repressive,” Sawyer said. “Congo’s international partners should work to prevent any further escalation of violence and press for those responsible for abuses to be held to account.”

The January 2015 Demonstrations
Based on Human Rights Watch research, at least 38 civilians were shot dead by police and members of the Republican Guard presidential security detail during the demonstrations in Kinshasa from January 19 to 21. Many of the victims were shot in the head or chest and appeared to have been deliberately targeted. In some cases, security forces took the bodies away, and families were unable to locate the body for burial. In other cases, security forces prevented families from taking the body out of the morgue.

Human Rights Watch also documented five cases in which people arrested by the police or Republican Guard during the protests have disappeared. Their families have been unable to locate them in any of Kinshasa’s prisons, other known detention centers, or morgues.

An employee at one of Kinshasa’s main morgues, who works as a guard and also cleans corpses before they are returned to families, told Human Rights Watch that security officials prevented him and other civilian employees from entering the morgue during the week of January 19 and that they were replaced by police officers. He said Republican Guard soldiers arrived at the morgue at about midnight or later each night.

“They would enter [the morgue] at night and then leave, without us knowing what exactly they were doing,” he said. “When we tried to look from afar, we could see that they were bringing corpses in bags that looked like tarpaulins. We had to look discreetly because, if they catch you, you don’t know where it’s going to end for you.”

A surgeon at a hospital associated with another morgue in Kinshasa said that during the week of January 19, the morgue authorities “changed the team” working at the morgue and replaced them with police officers or intelligence agents: “We were told that police officers brought bodies [to the morgue] between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. during the week of January 19. On the Friday of that same week, the police came with their big trucks and took some corpses, most likely to hide the evidence.”

A mother who signed the joint call for justice said her 22-year-old deaf and mute son who worked shining shoes was killed by Republican Guard soldiers during the demonstrations on January 20. When his friends tried to take her son’s body after he was killed, Republican Guard soldiers prevented them by firing into the air and took his body away, she said. She has not been able to locate his body.

“His death has been very hard for me, and I want justice to be done,” she said. “My family was unable to organize a funeral. He wasn’t among the demonstrators, but he was there because that’s where he and his friends worked as shoe shiners. My child was killed like that for nothing, and since he couldn’t talk, I think it must have been difficult for him to know what was happening that day and to leave the area in time…. I want them to give me his body so he can at least have a burial.”

The father of another young man who was allegedly killed during the demonstrations in Kinshasa on January 20 said that his son was shot dead by a police officer who took the body away with him. The father also signed the joint call for justice.

When the victim’s family went to the morgue at Kinshasa’s general hospital to try to find his body, a military police officer ordered them to sit on the ground and hand over their money, phones, and belts. The father said that the officer then said: “We’re going to let you go but don’t ever come back here again because these bodies, they are being dealt with by the state. Forget him like someone who has lost the key to his door. Leave and don’t look back.”

Another man who signed the joint call said that on January 19, police in Ndjili, Kinshasa, arrested his younger brother, who was holding a flag of a political opposition party, the Union pour la Nation Congolaise (UNC), during a demonstration against proposed changes to the electoral law. His family was unable to locate him in any of Kinshasa’s prisons or morgues.

A week after the younger brother’s disappearance, the older brother received a phone call from an unidentified person who told him: “It’s you who wants to betray the country. You need to stop with this. Watch out.”

“When I saw the news on television [about the mass grave], I felt really bad,” he said. “I thought about it a lot, because they said these bodies were unidentified. It’s been really hard for me. I don’t know if I’ll ever see my little brother again… The more days that pass, the more I lose hope. My problem is that I want to see him again. He could have become a great man in his life.”

Operation Likofi
During “Operation Likofi,” from November 2013 to February 2014, police in Kinshasa who participated in the operation extrajudicially killed at least 51 young men and boys and forcibly disappeared at least 33 others, according to Human Rights Watch research. Police beat and humiliated many victims in front of crowds before killing them, while others were dragged out of their homes and shot dead in front of family members and neighbors. The police warned witnesses and family members of victims not to speak out about what happened and, in many cases, police took the bodies of the victims with them and prevented family members from getting the bodies or holding funerals.

Human Rights Watch, families of victims, and others called on the Congolese government at the time to hold those responsible for these abuses to account, including Gen. Céléstin Kanyama, the primary commander of the operation. He is now the provincial police commissioner for Kinshasa.

The government announced in November 2014 that it had opened an investigation into the crimes committed during Operation Likofi, and that its report on the operation would be published by the end of 2014. But the report has not been published and no senior police officers have been arrested or held accountable for the crimes.

A man whose son was killed by police officers participating in Operation Likofi, and who signed the joint call, told Human Rights Watch that he is worried his son might be among those buried in the mass grave. The police took the body away and he has not been able to find his son’s corpse in any of Kinshasa’s morgues or hold a funeral. “If my son did something wrong, they should have told us,” he said. “But why did they kill him like that? They shot dead my oldest son. The state is supposed to protect us, but what has this become now?”

A mother whose 22-year-old son was forcibly disappeared by police officers participating in Operation Likofi, and who also signed the joint call, said: “When I heard the news of Maluku, I was beside myself. I thought that it was my son who they buried there. I started to think that they had been hiding him and then threw his body into the grave. When I went back to the house [after hearing about the Maluku mass grave], I started to cry and the tension inside me has only worsened.”