(Brussels) - As the Democratic Republic of Congo prepares to launch its first national electoral process in four decades, ongoing divisions in the national army and government repression of civil liberties put the prospect for a peaceful and credible vote at risk, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

On Sunday and Monday, some 24 million newly registered voters will be able to vote on a constitutional referendum that would decentralize the Congolese government. If the constitution is adopted, Congolese will go forward with presidential and parliamentary elections due to be held before June 30.

“Congolese politicians and international donors alike want to avoid dealing with serious problems like army reform, repression of civil rights, and rebuilding the shattered judicial system until after the elections,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “They fear upsetting the electoral process and take the attitude of ‘don’t rock the boat.’”

Under the accords that ended the civil war in 2002, former belligerents that now form part of a transitional government were supposed to integrate their troops into a single force that would guarantee security to voters. But so far these armed factions have withheld their strongest troops, keeping them as a reserve should the electoral process fail or should they be dissatisfied with the results of the polls.

Some of the new national army units have joined the United Nations peacekeeping force, known as MONUC, in trying to restore order in eastern Congo where bands of Congolese and foreign combatants continue to prey upon civilians. Moderately successful in some areas, like Ituri, the combined forces are too few and too poorly equipped to bring order everywhere in the vast region. In several places election workers have been attacked by bands opposed to the election.

The arrest of supporters of opposition political parties and journalists, the suspension of various radio stations, and corruption among officials (which may serve to buy political support) also threaten the credibility of the electoral process before it has begun.

“After years of war and suffering, Congolese have high hopes for these elections,” said Des Forges. “The transitional government and its international supporters must redouble efforts to assure fair and secure elections.”