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People fleeing a peaceful political demonstration in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, when a group of hired thugs brutally attacked the demonstrators on September 15, 2015. © 2015 BBC

(Kinshasa) – Senior security force and ruling party officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo appear to have hired thugs to assault a peaceful political demonstration in the capital, Kinshasa, Human Rights Watch said today.

On September 15, 2015, a group of youth brutally attacked a public meeting organized by political opposition leaders to call for President Joseph Kabila to step down after his constitutionally mandated two-term limit ends in December 2016. The assailants were armed with clubs and wooden sticks and beat the demonstrators, spreading fear and chaos throughout the crowd of several thousand protesters. More than a dozen demonstrators were injured, including some who were trampled trying to flee.

Demonstrators at a meeting on September 15, 2015 organized by opposition party leaders in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to call on President Joseph Kabila to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.  © 2015 Private
“People in Congo have the right to demonstrate peacefully about presidential term limits without being attacked by hired thugs,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The apparent involvement of senior security and ruling party officials in the violent attack shows the ugly depths to which the authorities are willing to go to block opposition protests.”

Human Rights Watch observed the September 15, 2015 demonstration and interviewed victims, witnesses, medical workers, and several assailants.

People in Congo have the right to demonstrate peacefully about presidential term limits without being attacked by hired thugs. The apparent involvement of senior security and ruling party officials in the violent attack shows the ugly depths to which the authorities are willing to go to block opposition protests.
Ida Sawyer

senior Africa researcher

The assailants included members of the “youth league” of Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), many of whom are known to practice martial arts, and youth associated with Vita Club, one of Kinshasa’s main soccer teams. Intelligence agents from the National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR), police officers, and soldiers, all wearing civilian clothes, also allegedly participated in the attack.

Several young men who said they participated in the attack told Human Rights Watch they were among more than 100 youth recruited by senior security officers and PPRD officials. They said each recruit was paid about US$65. The recruits said they were called to a meeting with officials at a military camp in Kinshasa the night before and “given instructions on how to conduct the attack.” One of them said, “We were told to start attacking the demonstrators and create disorder as soon as one of the opposition leaders insulted President Kabila.” The recruits were provided with transport the next morning to the neighborhood where the opposition demonstration was taking place.
Police deployed to provide security at the demonstration did not stop the stick-wielding assailants when they arrived, but stood by and watched. The police only intervened some time later when the angry protesters turned on the assailants and started beating them.
A banner stating that the Congolese President Joseph Kabila will be at the end of his term in power on December 19, 2016, is displayed during a protest that took place in Kinshasa on September 15, 2015.  © 2015 Human Rights Watch

One of the assailants who was beaten later died from his wounds. Police officers quickly took his body to one of the city’s morgues. A morgue employee told Human Rights Watch that senior police officers told morgue employees they were not to touch the body or inform anyone about its presence. They instructed employees to label it a “body of the state,” preventing family members from claiming it. Human Rights Watch has documented previous cases in which the security officials have identified a corpse as a “body of the state” to cover up politically problematic deaths.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Kinshasa’s police commissioner, Gen. Célestin Kanyama, was among at least three senior officials at the recruitment meeting the night before the demonstration who gave instructions about how to conduct the attack. Kanyama has previously been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including for his command role during the crackdown in January against demonstrators that left at least 38 dead.

The police should remain apolitical, impartial, and uphold the right to peaceful assembly of all Congo’s citizens, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, could help deter future attacks by deploying UN police at political demonstrations. MONUSCO’s mandate under Security Council Resolution 2147 provides for it to “[e]nsure, within its area of operations, effective protection of civilians under threat of physical violence.”

The September 15 attack was only one of the latest incidents in a growing crackdown on those who oppose a third term for Kabila or any delays in national elections scheduled for November 2016. With preparations for elections already behind schedule, concerns have been raised that Kabila and his supporters might encourage election delays thereby allowing a glissement, or sliding, of the election date into an extension of Kabila’s term.

Two political party leaders and four youth activists were recently convicted of inciting civil disobedience or other trumped-up charges after speaking out against political repression or calling for the release of arbitrarily detained activists. Several other activists and political party leaders are detained and on trial for criticizing Kabila’s attempts to extend his term.

Other youth have been arbitrarily detained without charge. Three university students arrested in March 2015 while printing flyers calling on students to support an opposition leader, Vital Kamerhe, have been arbitrarily held by the ANR with no access to lawyers or their families. A Congolese musician remains arbitrarily detained by intelligence officials, allegedly for links to pro-democracy youth organizations.

On September 16, Kabila expelled seven senior politicians, known as the Group of 7, or G7, from the ranks of his coalition of supporters known as the Presidential Majority (Majorité Présidentielle, MP) after they sent him a public letter on September 14 demanding that he respect the constitution’s two-term limit. Other members of the majority coalition followed, declaring their support for the G7, and resigning from their government posts. A number have since faced harassment and intimidation.

On September 17, intelligence agents in Sankuru province (in the former Kasai Orientale province) shut down a radio station belonging to Christophe Lutundula, a member of parliament and one of the G7. A witness told Human Rights Watch that the agents confiscated the broadcasting equipment, telling employees that they had received orders from superiors in Kinshasa. On September 18, intelligence agents arrested three employees at the Planning Ministry, whose former minister, Olivier Kamitatu, is one of the G7. They were forced into vehicles and taken to intelligence agency offices, where they were held for several hours, then released.

“Congo’s history of serious human rights violations should put concerned governments on high alert to the political violence and repression before it escalates further,” Sawyer said. “They should press the government to release those wrongfully detained and investigate those responsible for attacks on peaceful protesters. Deterring abuses is far less costly than trying to pick up the pieces later.”

Attack on September 15 Opposition Demonstration
The September 15 demonstration took place at the St. Therese athletics field in Kinshasa’s N’djili commune. Demonstrators waved opposition party flags while Congolese music played and party leaders gave speeches. Many wore t-shirts that read “Non au Glissement” – a reference to attempts by Kabila’s supporters to let the national elections glisser, or slide, into an extension of his term of office.

An opposition party member who attended the demonstration told Human Rights Watch that she was attacked by the group of youth carrying clubs and wooden sticks:

When people started to flee, I saw the young men pursuing the protesters with clubs. I thought that the police would intervene because they weren’t very far away, but no, they didn’t do anything. While I was fleeing, one of the assailants came and head-butted me so hard that I fell down and lost consciousness.

A woman whose leg was fractured by one of the assailants said:

When I got up to see how I could flee, I saw a man with an iron bar coming toward me while crying, “We’re tired of you!” Then he hit me hard in the leg. I fell on top of the plastic chairs, and he continued on [into the crowd].

Only when demonstrators turned on the assailants did the police intervene. As they took the injured assailants away, some of the demonstrators threw rocks at the police, who appeared to be unarmed.

An employee at a morgue in Kinshasa told Human Rights Watch that police officers brought the body of one of the assailants to the morgue and that senior police officers later told all morgue employees not to touch the body or let anyone know it was there:

They told us that no one could touch the body, and that we had to put it to the side. “The body belongs to the state; don’t touch it,” they said. They even wrote on a paper that they put next to the corpse: “body of the state.” Then intelligence agents came to the morgue in civilian clothes to verify that the instructions had been followed. We know that they aren’t morgue employees, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

Arrests of Political Leaders and Activists
The following activists and political leaders have faced arbitrary arrest and detention, and some are on trial on trumped-up charges, for having spoken out against an extension of Kabila’s term in office or denouncing the repression in the past year:

Vano Kalembe Kiboko, a former member of parliament from Kabila’s majority coalition, was arrested on December 29, 2014, after publicly criticizing the police’s violent repression of a demonstration in Katanga and attempts to allow Kabila to seek a third term. He was sent to Kinshasa’s central prison and held in pretrial detention until May 2015, when his trial began. On September 14, he was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for racial hatred and tribalism and “spreading false rumors.”

Ernest Kyaviro, an opposition leader from Goma in eastern Congo, was arrested on January 22, during the week of demonstrations across the country against proposed changes to the electoral law. The day after his arrest, he was transferred to an intelligence agency detention center in Kinshasa, where he was held without charge and without access to his family or lawyer for 86 days. He was also refused medical treatment during this period. Kyaviro was later transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison. On September 18 he was convicted of provoking and inciting disobedience toward public authorities and sentenced to three years in prison. On September 23, Kyaviro’s wife received a threatening phone call from an anonymous caller who told her: “We had forbidden you from talking to the media, but now you’ve been making noise since your husband was arrested.… Now you will see what’s going to happen. We know where you live.”

On September 18, four youth activists from the organization Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le Changement, LUCHA), Trésor Akili, Sylvain Kambere, Vincent Kasereka, and Gentil Mulume, were convicted of “inciting disobedience to authorities” and sentenced to a suspended 6-month prison term and a 12-month probation period. They had been arrested on April 7 after organizing a peaceful demonstration calling for the release of their colleagues who had been detained in Kinshasa after participating in a workshop to introduce Filimbi, a platform to promote youth engagement in the political process. The four LUCHA activists had been provisionally released after 22 days.

Their colleagues Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala remain in detention at Kinshasa’s central prison, for participating in the Filimbi workshop. Their trial is ongoing.

The human rights defender Christopher Ngoyi and Cyrille Dowe, a political party leader, both arrested during the January demonstrations, are being held at Kinshasa’s central prison, after weeks or months in an intelligence agency facility. Jean-Claude Muyambo, another political party leader, was also arrested during the January demonstrations and sent to Kinshasa’s central prison. He is detained at a health clinic in Kinshasa where he is being treated for wounds inflicted on him during arrest. The trials against Ngoyi, Dowe, and Muyambo are ongoing – all based on apparently politically motivated charges.

On September 19, two students from the National Teaching University (Université Pédagogique Nationale, UPN) in Kinshasa were released after eight months arbitrarily detained by intelligence officials, without charge or access to their families and lawyers. They were arrested in January while carrying flyers calling on people to demonstrate against proposed changes to the electoral law.

Three students from the University of Kinshasa – Léon Nguwa, Joel Bokoro, and Giresse Bangomisa – remain in arbitrary detention at an intelligence agency facility. They were arrested in March while printing flyers calling for students to mobilize to support an opposition leader, Vital Kamerhe, who was on trial at the Supreme Court.

A Congolese rapper and artist, Junior Mapeki (known as Radek), is also being detained arbitrarily at an intelligence agency facility. He was arrested in May and interrogated about alleged links to the Filimbi activists and the West African pro-democracy youth organizations Balai Citoyen and Y’En a Marre. He allegedly had photos in his phone of people killed during the January demonstrations in Kinshasa.

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