DR Congo: Opposition Under Assault
Ensure Rights to Free Movement, Assembly Ahead of Elections
(Kinshasa) – Government security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo used live ammunition and teargas to disperse largely peaceful political opposition rallies during candidate registration in early August 2018.
Authorities also restricted the movement of opposition leaders, arrested dozens of opposition supporters, and prevented one presidential aspirant, Moïse Katumbi, from entering the country to file his candidacy for the presidential election scheduled for later this year.
“Congolese authorities have firmly clamped down on the political opposition in an apparent attempt to control the electoral process,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Elections can’t be credible when an opposition leader is banned from participating and opposition supporters risk death, injury, or arrest just for going out on the streets to peacefully support their leaders.”
The findings are based on personal and phone interviews in August with more than 45 victims and witnesses of violations, medical workers, activists, and Congolese political party members and leaders in Kinshasa, Goma, and Brussels, Belgium.
The Congolese government should end the excessive use of force against opposition supporters, release arbitrarily detained opposition party members and activists, and investigate serious violations and appropriately hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should allow all Congolese to fully and freely participate in the electoral process, including by permitting Katumbi to enter the country and register as a candidate.
Concerned governments and regional bodies should press President Joseph Kabila and other senior officials to end the repression of the opposition and to ensure that the electoral process is free, fair, and inclusive. The governments and regional bodies should expand targeted sanctions if grave human rights violations continue.
On August 1, security forces fired teargas and live ammunition to disperse tens of thousands of supporters who had gathered to welcome the opposition leader and former Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba in the capital, Kinshasa, wounding at least two people. Bemba returned to Congo to register as a presidential candidate after an International Criminal Court (ICC) appeals chamber overturned his war crimes and crimes against humanity convictionson June 8. Soon after Bemba arrived in Kinshasa, security forces blocked him from going to his residence in Kinshasa’s Gombe neighborhood. The authorities claimed his home was in a “presidential zone” that was off limits.
On August 2, the mayor of Lubumbashi, in southeastern Congo, issued a written statement that Katumbi would not be authorized to land at the Lubumbashi airport by private plane, as he had requested. Katumbi, who has been living in exile for the past two years due to a series of politically motivated judicial procedures, traveled instead to Zambia and attempted to enter Congo by road at the Kasumbalesa border crossing on August 3. Congolese authorities warned Katumbi that they would immediately arrest him upon his arrival in Congo. But when Katumbi reached the border, officials instead shut down the border and denied him entry.
Security forces fired live ammunition and teargas to disperse the thousands of supporters who came to welcome Katumbi on the Congolese side of the border on August 3, killing at least one person and wounding one other. Dozens of supporters were arrested. Security forces also deployed massively across parts of Lubumbashi and erected roadblocks on major roads, where they systematically searched vehicles.
Police also stopped members of parliament and other officials from Katumbi’s political coalition as they drove toward Lubumbashi’s airport, where they were expecting Katumbi to land. “As we tried to pass, a police officer pointed his gun at us and threatened to shoot us if we dared to continue,” one official told Human Rights Watch. “He said he was executing orders from his superiors,” the official said. When the delegation later tried to travel to Kasumbalesa to meet Katumbi there, police stopped them at a roadblock just outside of town and forced them to turn around.
In the eastern city of Goma, police prevented Katumbi’s coalition members from holding a peaceful protest on August 3. Protests continued in Lubumbashi and Kasumbalesa over the following days, as authorities continued to refuse to let Katumbi enter the country. On August 6, security forces shot dead a 10-year-old boy and wounded at least four people during protests in Lubumbashi.
Police again used teargas to disperse peaceful supporters of another opposition leader, Félix Tshisekedi, when he filed his candidacy for president at the national electoral commission, CENI, in Kinshasa on August 7.
Despite campaigning by top ruling party officials for the president to make a bid for an unconstitutional third term – and in the face of increasing national, regional, and international pressure to step down – Kabila did not submit his candidacy. He instead chose Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, current permanent secretary of the ruling party and former vice prime minister and interior minister, as the candidate for his electoral platform. In May 2017, the European Union sanctioned Ramazani for his involvement in “planning, directing, or committing acts that constitute serious human rights violations” in Congo.
In total, 25 people filed their candidacies for the presidential election during the registration period between July 25 to August 8. Katumbi submitted two complaints to the Conseil d’Etat, the country’s highest court, on August 8, contesting the migration department’s refusal to let him enter the country and calling on the electoral commission to permit him to register to vote and submit his candidacy. The court has not yet issued a decision.
The electoral commission published its preliminary list of candidates on August 24, disqualifying six presidential candidates, including Bemba and three former prime ministers, for reasons that many civil society activists and opposition political leaders denounced as arbitrary and politically motivated. Candidates can appeal to the country’s Constitutional Court. The final list of candidates will be published on September 19.
“Kabila not filing as a candidate is a crucial first step, but a credible electoral process is still a long way off,” Sawyer said. “Persistent pressure from Congo’s regional and international partners is needed for the country to avoid more repression and bloodshed and have a truly democratic transition.”
The Quest for New Elections
Over the past three years, Congolese government and ruling party officials and government security forces have used repression, violence, and corruption to extend their hold on power. President Joseph Kabila remains in office beyond the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit in December 2016.
Security forces have killed nearly 300 people during largely peaceful political protests since 2015, including by recruiting former fighters from the abusive M23 armed group to take part in the crackdown. Security services have arrested hundreds of political opposition supporters and pro-democracy and human rights activists. The intelligence services mistreated many of them and held them in illegal detention for weeks or months, without charge or access to their families or lawyers. Others were put on trial on trumped-up charges.
A Catholic Church-mediated power-sharing agreement signed on December 31, 2016, and known as the “New Year’s Eve agreement,” called for elections by the end of 2017 and for “confidence building measures” to ease tensions and open political space. Congo’s ruling coalition has largely flouted these commitments, as repression continues, and many political prisoners and activists remain in detention. In November 2017, the electoral commission published an electoral calendar setting December 23, 2018, as the date for presidential, legislative, and provincial elections.
Katumbi’s case was one of the “emblematic cases” highlighted in the New Year’s Eve agreement’s confidence-building measures. Congo’s conference of Catholic bishops and many others have denounced the irregularities in the judicial proceedings against Katumbi, including political pressure on judges to rule against Katumbi. One judge who refused to hand down a ruling against Katumbi was shot and almost killed by unidentified armed men. In June 2017, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Katumbi should be allowed to return to Congo and fully participate in the electoral process.
Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba announced on August 16, 2018, that Congo had issued an international arrest warrant for Katumbi.
In a statement on August 9, the African Union Commission’s chairman, Moussa Faki, appealed “to all actors concerned to work together, in good faith, to hold peaceful, transparent and truly inclusive elections, in particular by guaranteeing the right of all citizens who wish to compete.”
On August 13, the UN Security Council “reiterated that effective, swift and sincere implementation of the [2016 New Year’s Eve] Agreement, including the Agreement’s confidence building measures as well as respect for fundamental rights, and the electorate timeline are essential for peaceful and credible elections on 23 December, a democratic transition of power, and the peace and stability of the DRC.”
In an interview with Radio France Internationale (RFI) on August 14, 2018, the Angolan foreign minister, Manuel Domingos Augusto, said that Kabila’s decision not to run was “a big step,” but that more needs to happen “for the electoral process to succeed and achieve the objectives that have been set by the Congolese.” He emphasized the need for full respect of the New Year’s Eve agreement, including the confidence building measures, and for the elections to be inclusive.
At a recent Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit in Windhoek, Namibia, the Namibian president and new SADC chairman, Hage Geingob, said in an interview with RFI that the crisis in Congo could lead to more refugees fleeing to neighboring countries if it is not resolved. “That’s why, as a sub-regional organization, we intervene to say: colleagues in the region, we have rules about elections,” he said. “They need to be inclusive, they need to be transparent, and the opposition leaders need to have a say.”
Congolese human rights and pro-democracy groups created an online platform on August 14 with detailed information on the electoral process and 10 conditions they identified as necessary for the elections to be free, fair, transparent, and inclusive.
They called for the government to immediately release political prisoners, allow the free return of those living in exile, allow arbitrarily closed media outlets to reopen, ensure independence of the judiciary, and allow freedom for all Congolese to protest peacefully. They also said the electoral commission should reject the use of controversial voting machines thought to pose a danger of vote tampering, clean up the voter roll, and provide transparency in its activities and financing.
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