When Joseph Lokondo’s friend tipped him off that he was about to be arrested, he was not scared to face the law. “I thought to myself – if they want to arrest me for my opinions, so be it,” he recently told Human Rights Watch. Today marks 100 days since the 26-year-old activist was detained in Mbandaka, in western Democratic Republic of Congo.
Lokondo was arrested on January 20, after he took part in a public debate over local elections. He had launched a campaign called “Equateur Deserves Better,” aimed at what he considered to be “bad governance” from Equateur’s provincial governor, Dieudonné Boloko, and calling for the provincial parliament and the president to remove him. Lokondo stated that he wants to “see political leaders work for the good of the people and improve their socio-economic conditions.”
On March 27, Lokondo was convicted of “contempt for a member of the government” and “defamatory statements,” and sentenced to 13 months in prison. Prosecuting Lokondo for his criticism of a public official violated his right to freedom of expression, enshrined in Congo’s constitution and international human rights law.
After a night in police custody, Lokondo was moved to a filthy cell at the court. “I spent two nights there in inhumane conditions,” he said. “We were 40 in a cell meant for 10 people. We had to eat where we urinated.” Lokondo said police officers beat him.
Lokondo, who is married and has a daughter, was then transferred to Mbandaka’s prison, where water and food are in chronic short supply. Now, the coronavirus is at the prison’s doors.
Lokondo’s lawyer is appealing the sentence.
When Congo’s former president, Joseph Kabila, stayed in power beyond his two-term limit, Lokondo was among dozens of pro-democracy activists who stood up, demanding free and fair elections. He was arrested on December 31, 2017 and briefly detained.
Current President Felix Tshisekedi, after coming to power in 2019, ordered the release of political prisoners, following years of repression under Kabila. But the police still arbitrarily arrest and detain peaceful demonstrators.
Authorities should release Lokondo immediately and let him and others express their views peacefully, if they are to demonstrate that they are not slipping back to the old repressive ways of the Kabila government.