In a letter to President Laurent Desiré Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Human Rights Watch today denounced the arrest of Suliman Baldo, its DRC country researcher, on the evening of May 8, at the end of a recent official mission to the country.

Authorities detained him for twenty-four hours and expelled him. The human rights organization considers this arrest as part of a systematic government campaign aimed at silencing the vibrant local human rights community through the intimidation and arbitrary detention of activists. It urges the DRC government to immediately release all detained Congolese human rights advocates and to uphold their rights to monitor and speak out on human rights concerns in the country.
The letter of Human Rights Watch to the DRC government is attached.

May 13, 1998

His Excellency President Laurent Desiré Kabila,
President of the Republic
Kinshasa - Ngaliema
Democratic Republic of the Congo
Fax: +243 88 02120

Your Excellency:

We are writing to protest in the strongest terms the arrest of the Human Rights Watch researcher Suliman Baldo on the evening of Friday, May 8, at the Kinshasa Ndjili airport. Mr. Baldo was leaving the country after conducting a three-week human rights mission, which had been clearly stated on his visa application. We consider this incident to be part of your government's campaign to silence and isolate Congolese human rights and civil society organizations, and to send a message to their colleagues in the international human rights movement that contact with local activists will no longer be tolerated.

At the airport, agents of the National Intelligence Agency (ANR) confiscated documents found in Mr. Baldo's luggage, including newspaper clippings and public reports written by local human rights groups. Agents accused him of possession of "subversive literature" with the intention of propagating lies about the DRC government outside the country and of espionage for having contacted "banned" human rights organizations and opposition parties. At one stage, the general inspector of the ANR's station at the airport, who was leading the interrogation, threatened to apply what he described as the "Congolese method" by ordering a soldier to beat up Mr. Baldo, apparently in an attempt to compel him to divulge information on his contacts and sources to the interrogators. Mr. Baldo was kept under constant military guard and was forced to spend the night in a holding cell in a military camp adjacent to the airport. Three other civilians accused of petty theft were also held in that cell. Finally, after 24 hours of detention and interrogation, Mr. Baldo was allowed to leave the country on Saturday evening.

This incident came in the wake of a series of similar attacks on local human rights groups, apparently aimed at silencing them through harassment and arbitrary detentions. In some cases detained rights activists were severely tortured. While it was true that only one human rights organization, the Association for the Defense of Human Rights (AZAHDO), was dissolved by an administrative measure of questionable legality, your government recently published a list of twenty-two officially-recognized rights organizations from among about a hundred such organizations operating in the country. Nevertheless, in late April, Paul Nsapu and Sabin Banza, two leaders of the "League of Electors," which is among the officially-recognized organizations, were arrested while leaving the Belgian embassy in Kinshasa. The two remain in detention to this day.

Rights defenders in the eastern town of Goma continue to face a severe crackdown meant to ensure their silence on abuses occurring there. One activist from the Goma-based association "Grand Vision" has been detained since January 1998 and another was severely tortured by the military in late March. In early May, two leading women activists from Goma were arrested. Activists from other civil society associations in Goma have left the region in fear of their lives.

The arrest of a visiting human rights activist is obviously meant to throw the local groups in further disarray and to weaken their interaction with their international counterparts. We call on your government to halt arbitrary arrests, intimidation and acts of violence targeting human rights defenders and members of nonviolent civilian organizations. We urge your government to recognize the rights of human rights advocates in the Congo to monitor, investigate, and publicly speak out on human rights concerns and to associate freely with others nationally and internationally in order to promote and protect human rights in the DRC.

Sincerely Yours,

Peter Takirambudde
Executive Director for Africa