Today marks three months since Congolese authorities detained Parfait Muhani, a 31-year-old pro-democracy activist, in Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, following a complaint brought by a foundation established by the wife of Congo’s president, Felix Tshisekedi.
Muhani, a member of the citizens’ movement Struggle for Change (Lutte pour le Changement, or Lucha), faces the death penalty on charges of “criminal association” for allegedly “having formed an association with the aim of discrediting people and properties,” and criminal defamation for posting a tweet denouncing embezzlement allegedly involving some of the foundation’s staff. The trial is expected to begin later this month. Congo’s death penalty has not been carried out in two decades, but Muhani could still get a life sentence.
The showdown between the Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi Foundation, founded by First Lady Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi, and Congolese activists began in June, when Lucha alleged that local authorities in North Kivu’s Rutshuru territory and some of the foundation’s staff had misappropriated goods intended for people displaced by the Nyiragongo volcanic eruption. While an official from Rutshuru and his associate were prosecuted and convicted, the foundation was not investigated.
Instead, the foundation filed a complaint against Lucha members, and the authorities arrested Muhani in Goma on July 6. On August 22, the authorities arrested another Lucha activist, Ghislain Muhiwa, 31, during his wedding celebrations. And an arrest warrant has been issued against a third Lucha member, Espoir Ngalukiye.
“We thought that the judiciary was [also] going to investigate those responsible [at the foundation] for the [alleged] misappropriations,” Muhiwa told us. “But it turned out differently.”
Because martial law is currently in force in North Kivu, Muhani and Muhiwa will be tried before a military court, contrary to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which says civilians should never face military trial.
Muhani and Muhiwa were previously targeted for their activism. Both were detained for months in 2016 and 2018 at Goma’s prison for peacefully protesting then-President Joseph Kabila’s staying in office beyond the two-term limit.
Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases involving state agents and security forces targeting activists critical of the government, including other Lucha members and whistleblowers.
Prosecutors in Congo should stop responding to allegations of corruption by prosecuting those making the claims. Rather than targeting the messengers, the authorities should investigate Lucha’s allegations into misappropriation of aid and take appropriate action.