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(Brussels) – Senior security force officers in the Democratic Republic of Congo mobilized over 200 former M23 rebel fighters from neighboring countries to quash protests against President Joseph Kabila in December 2016, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Kabila has since strengthened his hold on power and delayed elections, raising concerns that planned protests will be met with further violence and repression.

The 69-page report, “‘Special Mission’: Recruitment of M23 Rebels to Suppress Protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” documents that Congolese security forces along with recruited M23 fighters from Uganda and Rwanda killed at least 62 people and arrested hundreds more during country-wide protests between December 19 and 22, when Kabila refused to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. M23 fighters patrolled the streets of Congo’s main cities, firing on or arresting protesters or anyone else deemed to be a threat to the president.

“Covert operations to recruit fighters from an abusive armed group to suppress any resistance show how far President Kabila and his coterie are willing to go to stay in power,” said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch and one of the report’s authors. “Congolese officials should end all unlawful use of force against protesters and allow peaceful political activities by activists and the political opposition.” 

Congolese police drive past a fire barricade during demonstrations in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, December 20, 2016. © 2016 Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

The findings are based on over 120 interviews, including with victims of abuse, their family members, witnesses, local activists, nine Congolese security force officers, government and United Nations officials, and diplomats, as well as 21 M23 fighters, commanders, and political leaders. Human Rights Watch conducted research in Kinshasa, Goma, and Lubumbashi in Congo, in Uganda, in Rwanda, and in Brussels, Belgium, from December 2016 to November 2017.

Between October and early December 2016, as public pressure on Kabila was escalating, senior Congolese security force officers recruited M23 fighters from military and refugee camps in neighboring Uganda and Rwanda. Many fighters had been based there since the armed group’s defeat in eastern Congo in November 2013.

After being transferred to Congo, the M23 fighters were deployed to the capital, Kinshasa, and to Goma and Lubumbashi. The security forces gave them new uniforms and weapons and integrated them into the police, army, and the Republican Guard, the presidential security detail. Congolese army officers – including many from previous Rwandan-backed rebellions who had since integrated into the Congolese army – looked after them, paying them well and providing them with food and accommodation. To protect the president and quash protests, the M23 fighters were given explicit orders to use lethal force, including at “point-blank range” if necessary.

“Many M23 were deployed to wage a war against those who wanted to threaten Kabila’s hold on power,” one M23 fighter told Human Rights Watch. Another said: “We received orders to shoot immediately at the slightest provocation by civilians.”

Congolese officers sent the recruited M23 fighters back to Uganda and Rwanda in late December and early January 2017. Many were brought back between May and July and sent to Kisangani in northeastern Congo, allegedly to prepare for future “special operations” or “special missions” to respond to any threats to Kabila’s hold on power.

Following the December 2016 violence and growing international pressure, Kabila’s ruling coalition agreed on December 31 to a Catholic Church-mediated power-sharing agreement with the main opposition coalition. The so-called New Year’s Eve agreement called for presidential elections by the end of December 2017 and included a clear commitment that Kabila would not run for a third term or amend the constitution. Yet Congo’s ruling coalition did not organize elections or carry out the agreement’s confidence-building measures.

On November 5, soon after the United States ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, visited Congo and called on Kabila to hold elections by the end of 2018, Congo’s electoral commission (CENI) published an electoral calendar that set December 23, 2018 as the date for presidential, legislative, and provincial elections – more than two years after the end of Kabila’s two-term limit. The CENI also cited numerous financial, logistical, legal, political, and security “constraints” that could affect the timeline.

The political opposition and civil society groups denounced the calendar as merely another delaying tactic to unconstitutionally extend Kabila’s presidency. They have called on Kabila to step down by the end of 2017 and for a transition without Kabila to be organized. It should be led by people who could not be candidates in future elections, they have said, and should have the primary aim of organizing credible elections, restoring constitutional order, and allowing for a new system of governance in which basic rights are respected.

“Kabila’s refusal to step down as the constitution requires has plunged Congo into a political, economic, and human rights crisis that could have devastating consequences for the region,” Sawyer said. “To prevent an already explosive situation from worsening, Congo’s regional and international partners should press Kabila to step down and allow for credible, peaceful elections.”

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