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DR Congo: Security Forces Fire on Catholic Churchgoers

End Crackdown, Allow Religious Services, Peaceful Protests

(Kinshasa) – Security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo used excessive force, including teargas and live ammunition, against peaceful protesters at Catholic churches in the capital, Kinshasa, and other cities on December 31, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. When confronted by the heavily armed police and soldiers, some protesters, dressed in white, sang hymns or knelt on the ground. At least eight people were killed and dozens injured, including at least 27 with gunshot wounds, but the actual number killed and wounded may be much higher.
The shooting, beating, and arbitrary arrests of peaceful churchgoers by Congolese security forces violated the rights to freedom of worship, expression, and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Those responsible for the unlawful use of deadly force should be prosecuted. With more protests planned, the authorities should lift the ban on demonstrations and allow people to worship without interference.
“Congolese security forces hit a new low by firing into church grounds to disrupt peaceful services and processions,” said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop banning demonstrations and leave worshipers alone.”
Since the shootings, Catholic Church lay leaders in Congo have called for peaceful marches following Sunday Mass on January 21, 2018, to press Congo’s leaders to respect the Catholic Church-mediated political agreement signed in late 2016. The agreement called for presidential elections by the end of 2017 and measures to ease political tensions. These commitments have largely been ignored, however, as President Joseph Kabila has held on to power through repression and violence.
Since December 31, Human Rights Watch has interviewed 86 people in Congo, including victims and their family members, witnesses, priests and other church officials, hospital and morgue employees, local activists, security force officers, and political leaders. 
In early December, the Lay Coordination Committee (CLC), a group of Catholic intellectuals, backed by Catholic priests and bishops in Congo, called for a protest on December 31. They appealed to all Congolese to protest the failure to implement the so-called New Year's Eve Agreement and “to free the future of Congo.” Priests at parishes across Congo planned peaceful processions that would begin from their churches immediately following Sunday Mass. All the main political opposition leaders, civil society groups, and citizens’ movements supported the call to protest, with many explicitly demanding Kabila’s immediate resignation and a “citizens’ transition” to restore constitutional order and organize credible elections.
In the days leading up to the protests and on December 31, security forces arrested scores of people, including at least six Catholic priests, as well as pro-democracy activists, members of opposition parties, and other peaceful protesters. In an apparent attempt to prevent information about the protests from spreading, the government ordered telecommunications companies to block text messages and internet access across Congo on December 30. Service was only restored three days later.
On the morning of December 31, security forces surrounded at least 134 Catholic parishes in Kinshasa and erected roadblocks across the city, the church reported. Many Kinshasa residents were forced to show their voter registration cards, which serve as identity cards in Congo, to pass the roadblocks and continue to church. Some people, including those wearing or holding visible religious symbols – such as crosses, bibles, rosaries, and palms – were blocked from crossing the roadblocks. Security forces told some that there would be no Mass that day and they should return home.
Despite the heavy intimidation tactics, churches were packed, according to priests and congregants. Worshipers and others attempted to demonstrate following services in the cities and towns of Beni, Bukavu, Butembo, Goma, Idjwi, Kindu, Kamina, Kananga, Kisangani, Lubumbashi, Matadi, and Mbandaka, as well as in the capital. Across the country, the security forces quickly and often violently dispersed the protesters.
In Kinshasa, security forces fired teargas into church buildings in at least three parishes. In numerous other parishes, they fired teargas, rubber bullets, and in some cases live ammunition within the parish grounds, just outside the church buildings.
“At the beginning of the homily, I heard a loud boom from outside as the police fired teargas,” a priest in Kinshasa said. “But despite this, I continued with the service. Then there was a second boom, and a third, and this time the police had fired teargas within the church. It was then impossible to continue, so I had to stop the Mass to allow the worshipers to go outside to breathe.”
Kinshasa’s police spokesperson said on January 2 that five people were killed on December 31, including a policeman, two bandits known as “kulunas,” a so-called “terrorist,” and a member of the Kamuina Nsapu militia, who all reportedly died under circumstances unrelated to the protests.
Security forces pursue peaceful protesters in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, on December 31, 2017.  © 2017 John Bompengo

In addition to eight deaths that could be confirmed, Human Rights Watch received credible reports from security force officers, morgue officials, and others about at least 20 additional people killed in Kinshasa whose bodies were taken by the security forces to unrevealed locations. Some were allegedly thrown in the Congo River. Human Rights Watch is continuing its investigations into these reported deaths.

Congolese authorities should fully permit peaceful demonstrations in accordance with international human rights standards, and ensure that security forces do not use unnecessary or excessive force. Those responsible for the unlawful use of force, arbitrary arrests, and other serious rights violations should be appropriately disciplined or prosecuted. The authorities should stop blocking communication, including by compelling telecommunications companies to limit services.

The UN peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, should carry out its mandate to protect the population more actively, including by deploying to areas where people are likely to gather in advance of planned demonstrations to act as a deterrent against abuses.

Congo’s international partners should show there are real consequences for the violent and abusive tactics government officials and security forces are using to maintain Kabila’s grip on power, including through expanded targeted sanctions against those most responsible for the abuses and those providing financial or political support to the repressive tactics. Donors should end all direct support to the Congolese government and security forces until concrete steps are taken to open political space and hold those responsible for serious abuses to account. Funding should be redirected to humanitarian aid and Congolese civil society and human rights groups. Regional leaders should press Kabila to step down and work with other partners to address any concerns about his physical security after he leaves power.

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief should conduct a visit to Congo to investigate and publicly report on the violence against priests and worshippers within Catholic parishes around December 31.

“Kabila and his coterie appear ready to use all available means to crush, silence and eliminate any opposition to their efforts to stay in power,” Sawyer said. “Before yet another round of deadly violence and repression, Congo’s international partners should show Kabila that further abuses will not be tolerated.”

Security Forces Surround Churches, Disrupt Services and Processions

Kinshasa has more than 160 Catholic parishes, the vast majority of which were surrounded or disrupted by security forces during or after Sunday Mass on December 31, priests and other church officials said. According to a technical note published by the Nonce Apostolique, the permanent diplomatic representative of the Holy See in Kinshasa, on January 3, security forces surrounded 134 Catholic parishes in Kinshasa; completely blocked access to and prevented celebration of Mass at two; disrupted Mass services at five; entered parish grounds in at least 18; and fired teargas into at least 10. Deaths were reported in at least three parishes, the note said.

A priest in Kinshasa told Human Rights Watch that he was surprised by the number of people who showed up for Mass that day, given that security forces had surrounded his parish:

Generally, we only see this type of crowd during big religious celebrations, but it was a rather ordinary Mass on the 31st. Yet my parish was flooded with worshipers, both inside the church and outside in the courtyard. I was very surprised because the police had already deployed near the parish the day before and they’d set up multiple barriers. I was sure that the faithful would be too afraid to go to Mass the next day. But I see now that the Congolese people are determined.

Another priest in Kinshasa said the police fired teargas and live ammunition at the crowd of worshipers who wanted to start their march after Mass, and then followed those who sought shelter inside the church, firing teargas and raiding the vestry. He said:

When the faithful wanted to start the march, security forces tried to stop them by blocking the road and firing teargas at the crowd. Following the instructions that had been given in advance, the Christians all knelt down and began singing hymns. Security forces responded to this by firing live ammunition, wounding two people. Panic ensued, and some of the worshipers ran back inside the church.

About 10 minutes later, the police broke into the parish and fired at least six rounds of teargas at the children, elderly, and others seeking shelter inside the church. Then they ransacked everything, including the benches, the creche, and they even attempted to set the statue of the Virgin Mary on fire. They went into the vestry and systematically searched everything, apparently looking for money or other valuables.

At another parish in Kinshasa, the priest decided not to organize a march outside the parish grounds, given the heavy deployment of security forces, but to instead hold a procession from the church to a statue of the Virgin Mary. “The worshipers were led by acolytes bearing crosses and other religious symbols as they processed toward the statue,” he said. “When the security forces outside saw this, they immediately fired teargas. A police officer then fired live bullets at those who had already reached the statue, wounding two people.”

Killings by Security Forces

The victims of the eight killings confirmed by Human Rights Watch were all adult males, three of them elderly.

Security forces shot a 23-year-old fare collector on a bus in Kinshasa on his way to work. His brother told Human Rights Watch:

My brother was on his way to work when he saw a crowd of people running in all directions, as the security forces pursued them. He eventually found himself in front of a group of soldiers who accused him of being among the demonstrators. He told them that he wasn’t, and when he saw a soldier loading his weapon, he started to flee. The soldier then shot him, first in the hand and then in the shoulder…It hurts to hear the authorities say that the military did not kill anyone, when there’s a case in my own family.

A woman said that police shot dead her fiancé, a 44-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, 10 meters from the entrance to a church in Kinshasa:

My fiancé wasn’t a Catholic, but he had joined the march like any citizen who wants to see change in our country. After they had finished the march and were heading back to the parish, led by the Catholic priests, police began dispersing the crowd by firing teargas and bullets. My fiancé then tried to help a nun pick up her shoe that had fallen off, and that’s when a bullet hit him in the chest, right in front of the parish. Our wedding was supposed to take place in a few weeks, and now he’s gone.

After the taxi driver was shot, another man shouted out that the police had killed “an innocent man” known to everyone in their neighborhood. The police then shot dead this man as well.

A theater actor, 60, was fatally shot outside his home in Kinshasa when security forces dispersed a crowd of people nearby. His wife said:

My husband did not take part in the protest, but he was talking to his brother outside our house when a police jeep came up and they began firing at a nearby crowd of people. My husband was hit by a bullet on his right side and it came out in the lower abdomen. Since he was bleeding a lot, we took him straight to the clinic in our neighborhood before he was transferred to a public hospital. He then died from the wound four days later.

A woman said that her 75-year-old retired husband died from asphyxiation after inhaling teargas during Mass in Kinshasa on December 31:

On Sunday, I went to church with my husband, who was in very good health. After the Mass, the priest told us not to go outside because the church was surrounded by the police. Despite this, my husband went out. Soon after, I saw him running back in with his hands covering his face. His eyes were swollen, his lips seemed burned, and suddenly his whole body started to transform. Another one of the worshippers told me that a police officer had fired teargas right at him as he approached the gate to leave the parish grounds, together with others who wanted to start the march. We took him to the hospital, where he died the same day.

The son of a 67-year-old Catholic teacher said that his father died after inhaling teargas the police fired into his parish after the Sunday Mass:

When my father got home from church on Sunday, he said he felt dizzy after having breathed in the teargas that the police had fired outside the church. Then on Tuesday, it really started to affect his whole body. He could no longer speak or move; only his right hand could move a little. We took him to a local clinic, and they transferred him to the emergency services. He died two days later.

In Kananga, Kasai Central province, a priest told Human Rights Watch that security forces shot dead a 22-year-old member of his church when the young man was heading toward the worshipers to join them in the march.

A Catholic mason, 28, was shot dead after attending Sunday Mass at a church in Kinshasa. His uncle told Human Rights Watch that his family had been unable to recover his body from the morgue or organize his funeral:

When we went to the morgue, the military police stopped us and arrested us, together with a foreign journalist and two lawyers who had accompanied us. They took us all to a military camp where we were held until the evening. They accused us of taking foreigners to the morgue to do interviews and of making accusations against the president. After two days, we returned to the morgue with the money to embalm the body, but once we had completed all the formalities, an intelligence officer intervened to tell us that no one had the right to touch this body until further notice. He tore up all the documents we had filled out and took our money. Since then, we are scared to return to the morgue, but we’re also worried that our brother’s body will start to decompose. We hope the authorities will return it to us and allow us to organize the dignified funeral he deserves.

On January 18, the man’s family eventually received authorization to recover the body.

People Injured by Security Forces

Dozens of people were injured in Kinshasa and other cities when security forces fired teargas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition into church grounds and at crowds of protesters on December 31. At least 27 people suffered gunfire wounds in Kinshasa, according to hospital records seen by Human Rights Watch.

A woman told Human Rights Watch that her 20-year-old sister, a student in Kinshasa, was wounded in the face:

My little sister had just gone out to buy bread when a policeman fired at a crowd of people, and that’s how my sister was shot. The bullet hit her in the face, and she lost her teeth, upper lip, and part of her lower lip. Her tongue was also affected.

The young woman was later evacuated for medical care outside of Congo.

A Kinshasa priest said that a rubber bullet hit him under the eye:

I went to the gate of the church to ask the faithful to enter calmly and for the security forces to stop shooting at them, signaling with my hands to the forces stationed just across from the church. I then saw that a woman had been hit by a bullet right in front of the parish. Some of the youth brought the woman to the side of the road, across from the security forces, and started yelling that the police had killed an innocent girl; she wasn’t moving, and we thought she was dead. I then said to the security forces, “Look at what you’ve done. No one was even protesting, no one attacked you, so why did you shoot?”

Then one policeman asked another to shoot me. He then shot a rubber bullet right at my left eye. I moved a bit, and the bullet hit me right between my eye and my cheek. Despite this, I thought that we couldn’t leave the girl’s body there because the security forces would just take her away without any trace. So I dragged her body toward the church. The police then told me I couldn’t take her. That’s when they fired the teargas, to prevent people from taking her body.

A journalist in Kinshasa said that police and soldiers badly beat him:

After Mass, we went out to demonstrate peacefully despite the bullets and teargas coming from the security forces. When we got closer to the police officers and soldiers, the shooting intensified and I started to flee. They chased me and caught up with me. One of the policemen hit me on the head with his rifle, and I fell to the ground. When I tried to get up, a soldier hit me on my right arm, and I fell again, with a severe shooting pain in my head and arm. One of them said, “You play with Kabila, but he’s the one who has the weapons.” They then searched my pockets, took what I had, and sent me away, bleeding.

In the town of Kasindi, North Kivu province, pro-democracy youth activists attempted to protest, holding signs demanding that Kabila leave power. The police quickly dispersed them, beating two of them unconscious. Four were hospitalized for two days.

Arbitrary Arrests

The security forces arrested scores of people in the days leading up to the protests and on December 31. Many arrested were badly beaten. The United Nations human rights office documented 140 arrests on December 31 alone. According to the Nonce Apostolique’s technical note, at least six priests were among those arrested on December 31.

Security forces arrested at least 22 people on December 29 and 30, most of them activists, as they were holding small protests or mobilizing people people to participate in the larger protests planned for December 31, Human Rights Watch research found.

In Kananga on December 29, the police arrested 12 people during a peaceful protest. One was released, while the others remain in Kananga central’s prison, including 10 activists from the LUCHA, Filimbi, and Débout Congolais Batissons citizens’ movements, and one member of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) political party. They have been charged with “disobeying public authority.”

In Kindu, Maniema province, on December 29, police and intelligence agents arrested a Filimbi activist who had been mobilizing people to participate in the planned march on December 31. He remains in prison and has been charged with insulting the head of state and inciting revolt.

In Kisangani, Tshopo province, two LUCHA activists were arrested on December 29 and another on December 30 while they were mobilizing people to participate in the planned protests. They were first held by the intelligence services and then transferred to Kisangani’s central prison. They are facing charges of “inciting the population against the authorities in power.” One was released provisionally on January 15 and the two others on January 18, but the charges have not been dropped.

On December 30, Carbone Beni, the national coordinator of the Filimbi youth movement, was arrested along with five other activists while mobilizing Kinshasa residents to participate in the planned protests the next day. Two of the activists were released while the intelligence services are holding the other four in arbitrary, incommunicado detention, without access to their families or lawyers.

One of the released activists described their arrest:

At about 2 or 3 p.m., we decided to take a break to get some food. The others entered a restaurant while I stayed in the car. I then saw a man in civilian clothes approach the car. He pointed his gun at me and ordered me to enter the restaurant where the others were. A dozen assailants then stormed into the restaurant and forced us out of the restaurant with them and into their car. They brought us to the local administrative building where they beat us and told us we were fighting the head of state and that we were going to die because we are stubborn. Then they took us to a police station where they presented us to journalists as terrorists disturbing public order. They questioned us until nightfall. Whenever we gave an answer that didn’t satisfy them, they beat us. Later they told us we would be taken next to the intelligence services, where we would be killed.

Human Rights Watch documented arrests on December 31 in Kinshasa, Idjwi, Beni, Butembo, Kamina, Mbandaka, and Lubumbashi.

A priest in Kinshasa said that police arrested him at his parish soon after the Sunday Mass:

The police took me from the vestry and tied my hands with a rope before handcuffing me. They then put me in their pickup and forced me to lie under the bench. A policeman said to me, “Here you are, you are going to die for nothing. What you do is no longer religion; now you are in politics, and we’re going to take you somewhere that you will never return from.” Despite this, I did not answer, and I remained calm.

He was taken to the police station and detained for several hours, then released.

In Mbandaka, Equateur province, police arrested six peaceful protesters, including three LUCHA activists. They were released two days later. In Idjwi, police arrested seven people, including members of the citizens’ movements “C’en est Trop” (It’s too much) and LUCHA, soon after they began their march. They were released later that day. In Lubumbashi, police arrested 21 people when they tried to start marching. They were released several days later.

In Kamina, Haut Lomani province, police arrested 11 members of the UDPS opposition party as they were leaving church after Sunday Mass and preparing to start the march. Police beat and seriously wounded four of them. They were all released two days later. One described their arrest:

When the Mass ended, we were ready to start the march when we found ourselves in front of a group of police officers who started firing teargas at us. We went down on our knees to show that we were peaceful, but then they just started beating us.

In Beni, North Kivu province, LUCHA activists and others attempted to march, but police quickly surrounded them, beat them, and took four of the activists and two journalists to a police station, then released them later that evening. A LUCHA activist among those arrested said:

There were at least 13 of us, marching and holding signs, when the police surrounded us. They took our signs and started beating us with big clubs. We resisted by holding hands. Then they forced us into their police jeep and took us to jail. When another activist came to visit us with food, police beat him too, fracturing his left arm.

In Butembo, North Kivu province, police fired teargas and warning shots at demonstrators who had tried to start a peaceful march, wounding a woman. Four LUCHA activists were arrested and beaten. They were released four days later. One of the activists said:

Soon after we started our march with the Catholic worshipers, the police came and arrested some of us while others were able to escape. They beat us with clubs. They then took us to other police officers, who beat us too. And then an intelligence officer came and beat us with sticks and iron pipes, like those used in gas stations. We were thrown in jail for four days, without access to visitors or our lawyer. We struggled to get food, but some of the other prisoners shared the little they had. We were eventually released after MONUSCO and others intervened. Our health is still very bad. I’m in pain all over, and I have sores on my hand and my bottom.

Violence by Protesters

In almost all cities and towns, there were no reports of protesters engaging in violence or vandalism. In the southeastern city of Lubumbashi, however, some protesters threw rocks at police officers after the police began firing teargas to disperse them. Some protesters in Lubumbashi also burned tires on streets in the Kenya neighborhood and two vehicles, one in Kenya and one in Katuba neighborhood.

Catholic Church Response to Congo’s Political Crisis

Nearly six months after the New Year’s Eve agreement was signed, the 49 archbishops and bishops who make up the influential National Bishops Conference of Congo (CENCO) published a declaration on June 23, 2017, calling on the Congolese people to “stand up” and “take [their] destiny into their own hands.” They called for full implementation of the New Year’s Eve agreement and blamed the failure by those in power to organize elections for many of the country’s problems. Under Congo’s constitution, Kabila should have stepped down by December 19, 2016, at the end of his two-term limit. The bishops reiterated their appeal in a second declaration on November 24.

On December 2, in response to these appeals, the Lay Coordination Committee (CLC) issued a “final call” to Kabila to publicly declare that he would not be a candidate in upcoming elections, in accordance with the constitution, and to implement the necessary preconditions for elections, including releasing political prisoners, allowing the return of exiled opposition leaders, re-opening arbitrarily closed media outlets, restructuring the national electoral commission, and ending the “doubling” of political parties – that is, creating new political parties allied to the ruling coalition that bear the same name as opposition parties.

On December 17, after their demands were not met, the CLC called on the Congolese population, including Christians across the country and abroad, to march on December 31.

Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the archbishop of Kinshasa, issued a statement on January 2, condemning the excessive use of force against Catholic worshippers and other peaceful protesters as “barbaric” and calling on the country’s leaders to “step aside and allow peace and justice to reign in Congo.”

On January 11, the National Bishops Conference issued a communiqué, denouncing the attacks against the Catholic Church and its hierarchy and calling for sanctions against those who tortured, injured and killed fellow citizens and deliberately desecrated churches.

On January 12, Cardinal Monsengwo presided over a requiem Mass at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Kinshasa, in memory of those killed on December 31. After the Mass, police fired teargas to disperse worshipers leaving the church, including those who accompanied an opposition leader, Vital Kamerhe. At least two people were badly wounded.

Many CLC members are concerned about their security and have received suspicious calls and visits, while rumors have circulated about arrest warrants issued against them.

Congolese and International Legal Standards

Actions by Congolese authorities and security forces on and around December 31 were in apparent violation of Congolese and international human rights law.

The Congolese constitution and international agreements to which Congo is a party, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, all guarantee the rights to free practice of religion, peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression.

The constitution and the electoral law require organizers of political demonstrations to inform local authorities in writing 24 hours before the planned date of an event, but no prior authorization is required. In a letter delivered on December 27, the CLC informed the governor of Kinshasa about the marches planned for December 31. Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of this letter, with acknowledgement of receipt from the town hall.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which set out international legal standards on the use of force in law enforcement situations, provide that security forces should as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, the authorities should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. Lethal force may only be used when strictly unavoidable to protect life. Under the Basic Principles, in cases of death or serious injury, appropriate agencies are to conduct a review and a detailed report is to be sent promptly to the competent administrative or prosecutorial authorities.

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