(Kinshasa) – The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo should mark International Human Rights Day on December 10, by releasing everyone detained for their political views or for participating in peaceful political activities.

“Congolese officials’ recent attempts to intimidate and silence peaceful activists and political opponents should end immediately,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “International Human Rights Day is an opportune moment for the Congolese government to reverse this troubling trend and release everyone who has been locked up for peaceful political activities.”

The following people were arrested in the past year after speaking out against attempts to extend President Joseph Kabila’s term in office or participating in peaceful demonstrations or other political activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. They remain in detention.

In one of the most recent incidents, on November 28 in the eastern city of Goma, police fired teargas and live bullets in the air when about 100 people were attending a peaceful protest against the government’s failure to halt massacres in Beni territory. A 14-year-old girl was shot and wounded. Authorities arrested 12 people, including two youth activists, three teenagers, and other demonstrators and bystanders. The teenagers were released after four days, but the others remain in detention on trumped-up charges.

Later that day, when an activist from the youth movement Struggle for Change (La Lutte pour le Changement, LUCHA), which had organized the protest, went to the police station to bring food to the detainees, police interrogated him for 45 minutes, slapped him, and tore his shirt.

On November 30, Goma’s mayor, Dieudonné Malere, and senior city and security officials met with three LUCHA members. Meeting participants told Human Rights Watch that the vice mayor, Juvénal Ndabereye Senzige, told a LUCHA activist that he was “the instigator of trouble in Goma using the cover of the LUCHA movement” and that, “if there are deaths in a future demonstration, it’s you who we will take and make disappear. We will take you to a place where no one will be able to find you.” In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on December 9, the vice mayor denied saying this.

On December 3, Mayor Malere issued a statement saying that LUCHA did not have the correct legal administrative documents and that it operates in “total illegality.” The mayor said that “all LUCHA members and those who support them, from near or far, [should] cease all activities aimed at disturbing public order.” Congolese law permits people to peacefully protest without being registered as an association, Human Rights Watch said.

Following the LUCHA protest, on December 3, a coalition of 33 Congolese human rights organizations, known as the Coalition for the Respect of the Constitution, published a declaration urging the Congolese government to respect the right to hold peaceful meetings and demonstrations. The coalition also expressed concern that the government’s announced national dialogue to discuss elections could lead to electoral delays, which it said would violate Congo’s constitution. Two days later, Congo’s communications minister announced that the government had opened an “administrative investigation” into the 33 coalition member groups.

Over the past year, government officials and security forces have clamped down on those who have opposed attempts to delay the scheduled November 2016 presidential elections and extend President Joseph Kabila’s term in office.

Under Congo’s constitution, President Kabila is due to step down in December 2016, at the end of his second term. Preparations for the November 2016 elections have yet to begin. Kabila and members of his majority coalition have indicated that the elections might be delayed, citing the flawed voter list and the high cost of elections.

The police and Republican Guard fatally shot more than 40 people during demonstrations in the capital, Kinshasa, and in Goma in January against proposed changes to the electoral law. Authorities have sought to ban political demonstrations in cities across the country, and dozens of youth activists, students, musicians, journalists, political party leaders, and supporters have been jailed. The National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR) held many of those arrested for weeks or months without charge and without access to their families or lawyers. Some have been put on trial on politically motivated charges.

In the southeastern city of Lubumbashi on December 1, police fired teargas to block supporters of the TP Mazembe soccer team from entering a private stadium to attend a meeting with the team’s president, Moise Katumbi. The former governor of Katanga province, Katumbi resigned from Kabila’s political party in September, citing concerns about delays in organizing elections.

On November 4 and 5, three members of the opposition political party Innovative Forces for Union and Solidarity (Forces Novatrices pour l’Union et la Solidarité, FONUS), including a 78-year-old woman with a disability, were arrested in Kinshasa following a news conference by the party’s president, Joseph Olengankoyi, opposing delays in national elections. Those arrested were taken to a detention facility run by Congo’s intelligence services. The elderly woman was released after 26 days, while the other two were transferred to the prosecutor’s office after 33 days and charged with attacking state security. They are now in Kinshasa’s central prison.

The extension of Kabila’s term in office, referred to by his political opponents as glissement, or “sliding,” has met with widespread opposition, including by the Catholic Church, civil society groups, youth activists, and former members of Kabila’s majority coalition who have formed a group called the “G7.” Many have called for protests in early 2016 if the government does not start carrying out clear plans for timely elections.

Congo’s national prosecutor said during a news conference in Kinshasa on December 2, 2015, that public calls for people to go to the streets and demonstrate “are undoubtedly a very clear way of cranking up the engine or pushing the trigger and putting peace at risk.”

On November 28, Kabila announced he wished to hold a national dialogue to prepare the way for elections, though he did not say when it would start. Many opposition leaders have refused to participate, saying they believe it is another attempt to delay elections or to propose constitutional changes that would extend Kabila’s term in office.

Kabila also said that he would grant individual pardons to some political prisoners to help “restore calm.” Any initiative to pardon prisoners should be part of a broader program to release all prisoners held in violation of their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Congolese government should release all political prisoners as a critical step in the right direction,” Sawyer said. “This step should be accompanied by measures to prevent such abuses in the future, including by halting arbitrary detentions and prosecuting officials responsible for rights violations.”

For more information on current political prisoners in Congo, please see below.

List of Prisoners
The following people were arrested in the past year after speaking out against attempts to extend President Kabila’s term in office or participating in peaceful demonstrations or other political activities. They remain in detention.

Detained in Kinshasa:

  1. Vano Kalembe Kiboko: Former member of parliament from Kabila’s majority coalition, arrested on December 29, 2014, after publicly criticizing violent police repression of a demonstration in Katanga and attempts to allow Kabila to seek a third term. Detained at Kinshasa’s central prison. Convicted and sentenced to three years in prison on September 14 for racial hatred and tribalism and “spreading false rumors.” Appeals proceedings ongoing.
  2. Jean-Claude Muyambo: President of the Congolese Solidarity for Democracy and Development (Solidarité congolaise pour la démocratie et le développement, SCODE) political party and former president of the bar association in Katanga, arrested in Kinshasa on January 20, 2015, after mobilizing participation in the demonstrations against proposed changes to the electoral law. Held at Kinshasa’s central prison, then transferred to a health clinic, where he is being treated for injuries he suffered during arrest. On trial for “abuse of confidence” and selling a building that did not belong to him, likely based on a complaint that a client brought against him in 2002 – and later withdrew – in his home province of Katanga.
  3. Christopher Ngoyi: Human rights defender involved in mobilizing public participation in demonstrations against proposed changes to the electoral law, arrested on January 21, 2015, and held by the ANR for 20 days before being transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison, where judicial proceedings are ongoing.
  4. Ernest Kyaviro: Opposition political party leader arrested in Goma on January 22, during the week of demonstrations against proposed changes to the electoral law. Transferred to Kinshasa and held at the ANR for 86 days before being transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison on April 15. Convicted and sentenced to three years in prison on September 18 for provoking and inciting disobedience toward public authorities. Appeals proceedings ongoing.
  5. Fred Bauma: Activist with Filimbi, a platform to encourage Congolese youth to peacefully and responsibly perform their civic duties, and LUCHA, arrested on March 15 and held at the ANR for 50 days before being transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison, where judicial proceedings are ongoing.
  6. Yves Makwambala: Filimbi activist arrested on March 15 and held at the ANR for 40 days before being transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison, where judicial proceedings are ongoing.
  7. Léon Nguwa: University of Kinshasa student arrested in March while printing flyers supporting opposition leader Vital Kamerhe, during his trial at the Supreme Court. Reportedly transferred to the prosecutor's office in early December after being held for nearly nine months at the ANR.
  8. Joël Bokoru: University of Kinshasa student arrested in March while printing flyers supporting Kamerhe. Reportedly transferred to the prosecutor's office in early December after being held for nearly nine months at the ANR.
  9. Giresse Bangomisa: University of Kinshasa student arrested in March while printing flyers supporting Kamerhe. Reportedly transferred to the prosecutor's office in early December after being held for nearly nine months at the ANR.
  10. Junior Mapeke N’Labu (“Radek Supreme”): Congolese musician arrested in May and accused of having links with Filimbi. Held at the ANR without charge or access to lawyers.
  11. Jerry Olenga: Member of the opposition FONUS political party, arrested on November 4 after attending a news conference by the party’s president. Transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison after being detained for a month at the ANR.
  12. Paulin Lody: Member of the opposition FONUS political party, arrested on November 4 after attending the news conference by the party’s president. Transferred to Kinshasa’s central prison after being detained for a month at the ANR.

Arrested during the LUCHA demonstration in Goma on November 28 and held at Goma’s central prison:

  1. Juvin Kombi Narcisse (LUCHA activist)
  2. Pascal Byumanine (LUCHA activist)
  3. Innocent Fumbu
  4. Saidi Wetemwami Heshima
  5. Gervais Semunda Rwamakuba
  6. Nelson Katembo Kalindalo
  7. Jonathan Kambale Muhasa
  8. Osée Kakule Kilala
  9. Jojo Semivumbi

The nine people above are all charged with rebellion, incitement to acts of disobedience, insults to authorities, association with a criminal gang, intentional assault, and intentional destruction of goods or property belonging to others.