(Kinshasa) – Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila should make a public commitment before the end of his second term, on December 19, 2016, to respect the constitution and leave office, Human Rights Watch said today. Failing to do so will increase the likelihood of major violence and government abuses in the coming days and weeks.
Over the past three months, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 75 victims, witnesses, security force officers, and others about the September crackdown and received credible reports of over 30 additional people killed by security forces.
Since January 2015, Congolese authorities have arbitrarily arrested scores of activists and opposition leaders, some of whom the intelligence services held incommunicado for weeks or months while mistreating or torturing them, while others were tried on trumped-up charges. The government has shut down Congolese media outlets close to the opposition, at least six of which remain blocked. The signal for Radio France Internationale (RFI), the most important international news outlet in Congo, has been blocked in Kinshasa since November 5.
One of the September protesters told Human Rights Watch that soldiers arrested him on September 19, put him in an army truck, and drove him around Kinshasa for several hours. He said he witnessed soldiers shooting at a group of peaceful protesters outside of their truck: “When we drove by a group of young men gathered together, they started shooting. ‘You shot him in the neck but he isn’t dead,’ one of the soldiers said. ‘Shoot again,’ the other said.”
Some protesters in Kinshasa turned violent, beating or burning to death at least four police officers and one bystander. They also burned and looted police stations, a courthouse, public surveillance cameras, Chinese-owned shops, buildings associated with majority party officials, and other places seen as being close to or representative of Kabila and his government. Human Rights Watch found that police officers and members of youth leagues mobilized by ruling party officials and security force officers were also involved in the violence and looting.
After the September protests, authorities banned political meetings and rallies in Kinshasa. On several occasions when the political opposition or pro-democracy youth groups attempted to organize demonstrations or rallies, security forces fired teargas to disperse groups, arrested organizers, or surrounded opposition leaders’ homes to prevent them from leaving. Unidentified assailants have also attacked several opposition leaders’ homes in recent weeks. Over 100 pro-democracy youth activists, representatives from the opposition youth leagues, musicians, and journalists have been arrested since October in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma, and Bunia – most while planning or mobilizing participation in planned protests. At least a dozen remain in detention.
A member of the Innovative Forces for Union and Solidarity (FONUS) opposition party said his party headquarters was torched early on September 20 by men in military uniform:
About 4:20 a.m., we were on the balcony [of the headquarters], guarding the premises. We heard a suspicious movement outside the building and went a little closer to see what was going on. We saw a man who already had climbed over the wall and others who were trying to force the gate open. They were all armed, and they were wearing military uniforms. They had caps shielding their faces, and some had ski masks on. When they saw us, they fired three shots but we managed to flee and climb over the wall to the neighbors. We were hiding but could see them pour fuel and destroy the windows with a steel bar. In the morning, neighbors came to help us put out the fire. Then police officers came too, dispersing us with teargas as if they wanted to see the headquarters burn.
On September 20, security forces wearing police uniforms shot at protesters pillaging a Chinese-owned shop. A witness said:
I saw the police arrive to chase away the protesters who were looting. They fired live bullets at them, and three people were killed, including a man who was just walking by. The police then took all of the bodies away with them.
The uncle of a youth who was shot in the head by security forces on September 19 said that the family was not allowed to take his body out of the morgue for burial:
My nephew was shot in the head while protesting with the others on Monday [September 19]. We later learned that the Congolese Red Cross brought his body to the morgue. When we arrived at the morgue to recover his body, military police stationed at the morgue threatened us and said we would be sent to Ndolo prison [a military prison in Kinshasa]. They said they had received orders from their superiors to accuse everybody who came looking for victims of having sent their children to remove President Kabila from power.
The Red Cross later gave us a number that had been allotted to my nephew’s corpse. When we returned to the morgue, one of the staff there told us that, according to their registry, the body had already been removed. By whom and when? We have not received any response. Even if we have already held a funeral for him, we hope that the day will come that we can bury his body. We also never received the funds the governor of Kinshasa promised the relatives of victims because we haven’t received any documents from the morgue showing that the body of our nephew was brought there.
A witness told Human Rights Watch about the killing of a police officer during the demonstrations on September 19:
I saw the protesters attack the headquarters of the PPRD youth league, and as they advanced, the policeman who was guarding the building tried to resist instead of fleeing. The large crowd of protesters threw rocks at him and then set him on fire.
A Congolese journalist said that he and a colleague were detained while filming the protests on September 19:
I was filming demonstrators burning tires and barricading the street when a police truck arrived at the scene. I approached a police officer to ask him whether we could continue filming. He agreed but told me he was surprised to see me in a red zone. Later, intelligence agents arrived and told the police officer not to let me film them. The intelligence officers then asked us to identify ourselves and show our authorization to film. They took our identity cards and then told us we were arrested. They brought us to a police office, where we were held for several hours before being released. They never returned our IDs.
A human rights activist who was arrested on September 19 while observing the demonstrations with his colleagues described what happened:
Military police followed us into a house where we were trying to take cover as shots were being fired. They then ordered me to follow them and made me get in their truck. About a dozen other people were arrested with me. They drove us to a military camp, and there they took my watch, shoes and belt. I counted 121 people arrested. They identified us individually from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. and then proceeded to interrogate us. One of the officers allowed me to use his phone so I could alert my colleagues. We spent the night on the floor. They let me go on Wednesday [September 21].
A police officer told Human Rights Watch that six bodies with bullet wounds were found on the shores of the Congo River in Kinshasa’s Kinsuka neighborhood on September 21:
We received information that four bodies were discovered in the morning - two young boys, one girl and a young man. All had bullet wounds. In the early evening, two other bodies of young boys with bullet wounds were discovered. The prosecutor in charge asked us to push the bodies back into the water so they would sink. We did as we were told.
Other witnesses confirmed to Human Rights Watch that they saw dead bodies along the shores of the river in Kinsuka in the days and weeks after the September protests. One witness said that the police and Red Cross took some of the bodies away in a bus.