Activists and political leaders who speak out against attempts by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila to stand for a third term in office are being subjected to arbitrary arrest and, in some cases, prolonged incommunicado detention, according to the human right watchdog, Amnesty International, adding that the situation occurs a year even before presidential elections are officially due to take place.
A new report, Treated like criminals: DRC’s race to silence dissent in the run up to elections, reveals how DRC’s justice system is being used to silence critics of a third term by President Kabila. It focuses on the cases of eight individuals who were jailed after peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, one of whom spent 145 days in incommunicado detention.
“In the lead up to next year’s elections, the justice system has been compromised for political purposes to crush dissent,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes.
“People peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression are being arrested and detained incommunicado for months on end.”
Tensions have been rising amid fears that President Kabila may overturn constitutional term-limits and stand again in presidential elections – due to take place on 27 November 2016.
Protests against a Bill perceived as an attempt to delay elections triggered widespread demonstrations in January 2015. Security forces used excessive force to respond to these protests, killing dozens of people and arresting several hundred.
Political opposition leaders, Ernest Kyaviro and Cyrille Dowe, arrested during the January protests, were held without access to their lawyers for 86 and 145 days respectively. Ernest Kyaviro was sentenced to three years in prison, while Cyrille Dowe was acquitted.
On 15 March, Fred Bauma and Yves Makwambala, were arrested by security forces during a press conference launching the Filimbi (Swahili for whistle) youth platform. They were held by the National Intelligence Agency (ANR), which reports directly to the President, for 50 and 40 days respectively, incommunicado, without charge and without access to lawyers. Despite a lack of evidence against them, they were labelled “terrorists” and accused of planning to violently overthrow the government. They remain in arbitrary detention.
Protests calling for the release of those detained have been systematically repressed with activists arrested, detained and subjected to ill-treatment by the ANR.
Those brought to court have been denied bail without a clear justification and records of interrogations conducted during incommunicado detention have been used by prosecutors.
“The justice system has become instrumental in DRC’s crackdown against those speaking out against a third term by President Kabila. Political opposition leaders and activists have been arbitrarily arrested by the ANR and convicted by courts that flout Congolese, African and international human rights standards,” said Sarah Jackson.
“Lessons should be learnt from Burkina Faso and Burundi where mass protests were sparked by incumbents attempting to extend constitutional term-limits creating longer-term crises.”
Detailing the catalogue of atrocities against opponents of Kabila, Amnesty said: “Jean-Bertrand Ewanga, an MP and leader of the political opposition Union for the Congolese Nation party, was sentenced to one-year in jail on charges of insulting the President, the Prime Minister and the heads of the Senate and National Assembly.
“Jean-Claude Muyambo and Vano Kiboko, both members of the President’s ruling coalition, were arrested after they spoke out against the third term. Kiboko has been sentenced to three years in jail. Muyambo’s trial is still underway.
“Christophe Ngoyi, a human rights defender, was arrested after monitoring the use of excessive force during the January protests in the capital, Kinshasa and held incommunicado for 21 days. His trial continues.
“Activists of youth movements, such as Filimbi and LUCHA, have been targeted by the ANR.”
DRC’s Constitution limits a President to two consecutive terms. It also prohibits the number and length of terms from being changed by constitutional review, making President Kabila ineligible to stand again in November 2016. There are fears the elections may be delayed.