Youth activists in DR Congo rounded up at strike
Feb 24, Kinshasa: Democratic Republic of Congo authorities have arbitrarily arrested eight youth activists on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said.
The youth activists and at least 30 political opposition supporters were detained on or around February 16, 2016, in connection with a national strike, or “ville morte” (dead city), to protest delays in organizing presidential elections. Other activists who supported the ville morte have received text message threats from unknown phone numbers.
At about 4:30 a.m. on February 16, in the eastern city of Goma, police entered the office of an organization where youth activists had been working through the night preparing banners for the national strike. One of the banners read, “In 2016, we won the [African Nations (football) Championship’s] Cup; we can also win democracy.
The police arrested Rebecca Kavugho, Serge Sivya, Justin Kambale, John Anipenda, Ghislain Muhiwa, and Melka Kamundu, all members of the Struggle for Change (La Lutte pour le Changement, LUCHA) citizens’ movement.
The six were taken to the P2 police station in Goma, where they were questioned without a lawyer present. The police also confiscated two laptops, six cell phones, and the banners. When HRW visited the activists that evening in detention, one of them had a deep cut on his upper left arm incurred during the arrest.
About midday on February 17, two-dozen university students in Goma gathered in front of the P2 police station, peacefully protesting the arrests. They held signs that read: “We demand the release of our colleagues arrested yesterday and detained here.” About 20 police officers quickly dispersed the protesters, arresting and beating several of them. While most were released within a few hours, one student was held overnight. He later told Human Rights Watch that a police officer at P2 beat him with the barrel of his gun, injuring his right ear. The police then transferred him to a jail at the mayor’s office. He was released the next day, without charge, after his family paid US$30.
Shortly after the police station demonstration, the police transferred the six LUCHA activists to the prosecutor’s office. There they were charged with associating with criminals and attempting to incite revolt – charges that appear to be politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said.
Their trial began on February 18, at Goma’s High Court (Tribunal de Grande Instance) for charges flagrante delicto – for allegedly being “caught in the act.” The activists’ lawyers contended that the chamber had lost its jurisdiction because it can only hear cases within 48 hours of the alleged act. At a hearing the next day, all the police officers except one who had been called in to testify about the arrests failed to appear in court. The judges then decided to hear the case during regular proceedings, instead of for charges flagrante delicto, where a verdict would have been required immediately.
In the capital, Kinshasa, two other LUCHA activists, Bienvenu Matumo and Marc Héritier Kapitene, were reported missing from a hotel in Bandal commune early in the morning on February 16. At about 5:40 a.m. one of the activists sent a text message to a friend saying “arrested.” The previous evening, they had attended a meeting with other LUCHA activists to prepare for the strike. Just after the meeting, Victor Tesongo, a member of an opposition political party who had met with the LUCHA activists at the end of their meeting, was arrested on his way home.
The three remained missing until February 19, when they were transferred from a national intelligence agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignements, ANR) detention center to the prosecutor’s office. Until then, they were unreachable by phone, and their families and colleagues were not able to find them. They were first held at the provincial police commissioner’s prison, then transferred to the ANR on February 18. Human Rights Watch had contacted security officials to ask about the missing activists, but the officials did not confirm the arrests or provide information on the activists’ whereabouts, raising concerns of forced disappearances.
During a hearing at the prosecutor’s office in Kinshasa’s Gombe commune on February 20, Matumo, Kapitene, and Tesongo were put under a provisional arrest warrant on charges of incitement to civil disobedience, spreading false information, and attacking state security.
LUCHA activists told HRW they believe the police have been closely monitoring their activities since at least November 2015, when security officials brutally repressed a peaceful demonstration the movement organized in Goma. During that demonstration, two LUCHA activists and seven other people were arrested. They remain in detention and are on trial on trumped-up charges.
The Oslo Times/HRW