On Wednesday, a military court in Beni territory, Democratic Republic of Congo, acquitted eight members of the citizens’ movement Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change, or Lucha). The youth activists had spent a month in detention. While news of their acquittal is a relief, they should never have been arrested in the first place.
Eze Kasereka, Clovis Mutsuva, Consolée Mukirania, Elie Mbusa, Patrick Nzila, Délivrance Mumbere, Aziz Muhindovegheni, and Lwanzo Kasereka faced 10 years in prison. Their crime? On December 19, 2020, they marched to call for peace and to criticize the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo. Armed groups and state security forces have killed at least 670 civilians during attacks in Beni territory in the past year alone.
The activists’ trial sparked a public outcry in Congo. They had been brought before the military court on fabricated charges of “sabotage and violence against state security guards.” Among other falsehoods, the group was accused of breaking a flagpole at a police station in Beni. Instead, Lucha activists told my colleagues police beat them while in custody and used teargas on some of them.
The government’s request for 10-year prison sentences turned the proceedings into a grotesque parody of justice. Thankfully, the judges put an end to the farce and concluded the charges were baseless. But the arrests highlight the risks involved for those peacefully demonstrating in Congo.
The use of military courts to try civilians also violates international law, including the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Congo ratified in 1987. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that civilians should never face military trial.
People’s rights have been increasingly threatened over the last year in Congo. When state agents or officials use their position to crack down on peaceful critics, impartial judges remain the ultimate hope for justice. Like those who acquitted the eight Lucha activists in Beni, Congolese judges should be uncompromising in their respect of human rights.