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Justice at Risk in Democratic Republic of Congo

Draft Laws Endanger Independence of Courts

Protesters, including many motorbike-taxi drivers, demonstrate while holding placards for the second day around the Parliament in Kinshasa, June 24, 2020. © 2020 Arsene Mpiana/AFP via Getty Images

Addressing the nation on the eve of Independence Day last week, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, pledged to fight proposed laws that would undermine the country’s justice system.

A group of parliamentarians loyal to former president Joseph Kabila hope to use their overwhelming majority in parliament to pass three draft laws on the courts. These laws would provide the justice minister greater control over prosecutors, including by intervening in criminal prosecutions and even sanctioning prosecutors for pursuing a case against the minister’s will.

If passed, these laws would threaten to seriously undermine a judicial system already weakened by years of political interference and corruption. Human Rights Watch has long advocated for reforms to strengthen the rule of law in Congo.

The laws face mounting criticisms and street protests from civic groups, as well as opposition from the Catholic Church and protestant churches, and from prosecutors and judges in several cities.

Justice Minister Célestin Tunda, a Kabila loyalist, reportedly bypassed government consultations as well as the president, and endorsed the proposals. On June 27, the authorities briefly detained Tunda, further escalating political tensions in Kinshasa.

The embassies of Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States on July 2 issued a joint statement saying that “[u]ndermining this independence [of the courts] would erode protection of civil and political rights in the [Congo].”

The pro-Kabila faction proposed these laws as a major corruption trial, the first of its kind in Congo, came to a close last month. At a time when many Congolese are eager to see justice for corruption and rights abuses, the proposed laws would be a serious step backwards, protecting senior officials from the previous administration who have enjoyed impunity for many years.  

“Under no circumstances will I accept reforms in this sector which, by their nature and content, would harm the fundamental principles governing justice,” Tshisekedi said.

Parliamentary discussions over the draft laws have been postponed to September. They should be withdrawn altogether. Instead of putting forward amendments to existing laws that would further protect a few untouchables, parliament should work to protect the rights of all Congolese and push for much needed accountability.

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