Senior security force and ruling party officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo appear to have hired thugs to assault a peaceful political demonstration in the capital, Kinshasa, Human Rights Watch said today.
On September 15, 2015, a group of youth brutally attacked a public meeting organized by political opposition leaders to call for President Joseph Kabila to step down after his constitutionally mandated two-term limit ends in December 2016. The assailants were armed with clubs and wooden sticks and beat the demonstrators, spreading fear and chaos throughout the crowd of several thousand protesters. More than a dozen demonstrators were injured, including some who were trampled trying to flee.
“People in Congo have the right to demonstrate peacefully about presidential term limits without being attacked by hired thugs,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The apparent involvement of senior security and ruling party officials in the violent attack shows the ugly depths to which the authorities are willing to go to block opposition protests.”
Human Rights Watch observed the September 15, 2015 demonstration and interviewed victims, witnesses, medical workers, and several assailants.
The assailants included members of the “youth league” of Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), many of whom are known to practice martial arts, and youth associated with Vita Club, one of Kinshasa’s main soccer teams. Intelligence agents from the National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR), police officers, and soldiers, all wearing civilian clothes, also allegedly participated in the attack.
Several young men who said they participated in the attack told Human Rights Watch they were among more than 100 youth recruited by senior security officers and PPRD officials. They said each recruit was paid about US$65. The recruits said they were called to a meeting with officials at a military camp in Kinshasa the night before and “given instructions on how to conduct the attack.” One of them said, “We were told to start attacking the demonstrators and create disorder as soon as one of the opposition leaders insulted President Kabila.” The recruits were provided with transport the next morning to the neighborhood where the opposition demonstration was taking place.
Police deployed to provide security at the demonstration did not stop the stick-wielding assailants when they arrived, but stood by and watched. The police only intervened some time later when the angry protesters turned on the assailants and started beating them.
One of the assailants who was beaten later died from his wounds. Police officers quickly took his body to one of the city’s morgues. A morgue employee told Human Rights Watch that senior police officers told morgue employees they were not to touch the body or inform anyone about its presence. They instructed employees to label it a “body of the state,” preventing family members from claiming it. Human Rights Watch has documented previous cases in which the security officials have identified a corpse as a “body of the state” to cover up politically problematic deaths.
Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that Kinshasa’s police commissioner, Gen. Célestin Kanyama, was among at least three senior officials at the recruitment meeting the night before the demonstration who gave instructions about how to conduct the attack. Kanyama has previously been implicated in serious human rights abuses, including for his command role during the crackdown in January against demonstrators that left at least 38 dead.
The police should remain apolitical, impartial, and uphold the right to peaceful assembly of all Congo’s citizens, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, could help deter future attacks by deploying UN police at political demonstrations. MONUSCO’s mandate under Security Council Resolution 2147 provides for it to “[e]nsure, within its area of operations, effective protection of civilians under threat of physical violence.”
The September 15 attack was only one of the latest incidents in a growing crackdown on those who oppose a third term for Kabila or any delays in national elections scheduled for November 2016. With preparations for elections already behind schedule, concerns have been raised that Kabila and his supporters might encourage election delays thereby allowing a glissement, or sliding, of the election date into an extension of Kabila’s term.
Two political party leaders and four youth activists were recently convicted of inciting civil disobedience or other trumped-up charges after speaking out against political repression or calling for the release of arbitrarily detained activists. Several other activists and political party leaders are detained and on trial for criticizing Kabila’s attempts to extend his term.
Other youth have been arbitrarily detained without charge. Three university students arrested in March 2015 while printing flyers calling on students to support an opposition leader, Vital Kamerhe, have been arbitrarily held by the ANR with no access to lawyers or their families. A Congolese musician remains arbitrarily detained by intelligence officials, allegedly for links to pro-democracy youth organizations.
On September 16, Kabila expelled seven senior politicians, known as the Group of 7, or G7, from the ranks of his coalition of supporters known as the Presidential Majority (Majorité Présidentielle, MP) after they sent him a public letter on September 14 demanding that he respect the constitution’s two-term limit. Other members of the majority coalition followed, declaring their support for the G7, and resigning from their government posts. A number have since faced harassment and intimidation.
On September 17, intelligence agents in Sankuru province (in the former Kasai Orientale province) shut down a radio station belonging to Christophe Lutundula, a member of parliament and one of the G7. A witness told Human Rights Watch that the agents confiscated the broadcasting equipment, telling employees that they had received orders from superiors in Kinshasa. On September 18, intelligence agents arrested three employees at the Planning Ministry, whose former minister, Olivier Kamitatu, is one of the G7. They were forced into vehicles and taken to intelligence agency offices, where they were held for several hours, then released.
“Congo’s history of serious human rights violations should put concerned governments on high alert to the political violence and repression before it escalates further,” Sawyer said. “They should press the government to release those wrongfully detained and investigate those responsible for attacks on peaceful protesters. Deterring abuses is far less costly than trying to pick up the pieces later.”