(Kinshasa) – Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth urged Congolese authorities to halt the crackdown on peaceful activists and political opponents during his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo from July 15 to 22, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today.
In recent months, Congolese security and intelligence officials have clamped down on peaceful activists, political leaders, and others who oppose attempts to allow President Joseph Kabila to stay in power past his constitutionally mandated two-term limit, which ends in late 2016.
Roth traveled to the capital, Kinshasa, and the eastern city of Goma. He met with senior government officials, including President Joseph Kabila, political party leaders, activists, and victims of human rights abuses. He held a news conference in Kinshasa on July 22.
“Congolese security forces have used brutal methods to try to silence peaceful critics of the government,” Roth said. “The authorities should end the crackdown, urgently free anyone wrongfully detained, and appropriately punish all those responsible for killings and other abuses.”
Congo has a vibrant civil society and diverse and outspoken media. But the issue of President Kabila possibly extending his time in power beyond the two-term constitutional limit has led to numerous acts of repression.
In January, security forces brutally suppressed demonstrations in Kinshasa and other cities. Police and Republican Guard soldiers shot dead at least 38 people in Kinshasa and 5 in Goma. Dozens were wounded, and at least 5 people in Kinshasa were forcibly disappeared. Congo’s National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR) arrested political party leaders and detained them without charge for weeks or months without access to lawyers or family members.
In March, the ANR arrested about 30 youth activists and others attending a workshop in Kinshasa to promote the democratic process. Authorities in Goma arrested at least 15 youth activists who peacefully protested the Kinshasa arrests and in some cases badly beat and tortured them.
Eight prominent activists and political party leaders remain in detention in Kinshasa on trumped-up charges. They include the youth activists Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala; human rights defender Christopher Ngoyi; and political party leaders Jean-Claude Muyambo, Ernest Kyaviro, Cyrille Dowe, Jean-Bertrand Ewanga, and Vano Kiboko.
“If Congo’s government is serious about holding credible elections and respecting human rights, then it should immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and drop the charges against them,” Roth said.
The government should also exhume the bodies in a mass grave in Maluku, on the outskirts of Kinshasa, Human Rights Watch said. Families of people killed or forcibly disappeared by security forces believe that their relatives could be among those buried there. Roth met with several of the family members of 34 victims who had filed a joint complaint calling for a credible investigation with international support, including exhuming the bodies.
“The families I met desperately want justice and they have a right to know if their family members are among those buried at Maluku,” Roth said.
In eastern Congo, there has been notable progress in bringing those responsible for grave international crimes to justice, Human Rights Watch said. The March 2013 surrender and transfer to the International Criminal Court of Bosco Ntaganda, the defeat of the abusive M23 rebellion, and the convictions of several hundred soldiers for rape were all significant developments.
Yet the vast majority of those responsible for serious abuses remain unpunished. The government and the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, should increase their efforts to arrest armed group leaders wanted for grave international crimes, Human Rights Watch said. These include the military commander of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), Sylvestre Mudacumura, wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in eastern Congo in 2009 and 2010, and Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, wanted on a Congolese arrest warrant for crimes against humanity for the mass rape of nearly 400 people in 2010.
“The government’s failure to arrest rebel leaders years after warrants were issued for them has meant that their fighters have continued to commit horrific abuses,” Roth said. “Whether it’s security force abuses in Kinshasa or killings and rapes by armed groups in eastern Congo, bringing those responsible to justice should be a top priority for Congo’s government.”