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Human rights

Congo's president brutally suppresses opposition

by Claudia Isabel Rittel
When the Democratic Republic of Congo makes headlines, it is usually because of events in its troubled eastern provinces. A recent report by Human Rights Watch, however, blames the government of having abused citizens rights ever since the elections in 2006, stating that executions and acts of torture are not isolated incidents. Foreign governments, however, have turned a blind eye. A UN report released late last year, accuses Pre­sident Joseph Kabila of war-mongering.

The elections in the DRC two years ago were supposed to mark the beginning of a new, democratic era. For the first time in 40 years, the Congolese were invited to the polls to elect a president and a national assembly. Given the possibility of riots and violence, the EU sent in a special military force to maintain order and ensure stability during the elections. In actual fact, there was hardly any rioting before and after the polls, but up to now there is hardly any trace of democracy either. And it is not only the rebels that are making democracy impossible. A recent study by Human Rights Watch (HRW) shows that President Joseph Kabila’s government is systematically and brutally suppressing opposition.

Violent intimidation started during the election campaign. Since then, according to the HRW researchers, some 500 people have been killed and another 1000 detained. Many are said to have been tortured. In the most violent phase, the report says, state security forces threw corpses into the Congo River or buried them in unmarked graves.

The HRW investigators found that Kabila had opponents eliminated, and they do not doubt that the president himself is responsible for the crimes, given that he personally demandede that “enemies of democracy” be “crushed” or “neutralised”, thus indirectly legitimising the unlawful use of force. In mid-October 2008, security forces in Kinshasa arrested 20 people at whim, including a woman with a three-month-old baby. The human rights organisation estimates that, for political reasons, at least 200 people are currently being held in detention.

People living in the northern province of Equateur – the heartland of the unsuccessful presidential candidate Jean-Pierre Bemba – have been particularly targeted by the security forces, the researchers report. But not only the president's camp is responsible for acts of violence. Militias close to Bemba as well as supporters of the politico-religious group “Bundu Dia Kongo” (BDK) – which wants greater autonomy for the Bas-Congo province – are alleged to have murdered officials and common citizens alike. In the wake of those incidents, police and the army are said to have restored order and used excessive force.

Several parties have tried to investigate the crimes, including victims’ relatives and human-rights experts with Congolese and international organisations as well as the United Nations. HRW states that such efforts have been thwarted by government officials. Even the National Assembly's attempts to protest against the assaults have stayed fruitless. As D+C was going to press, government representatives were denying any illegal action by government forces – although a number of investigations suggest that this has indeed occurred.

HRW criticises foreign governments for being more concerned about getting close to President Kabila after the elections than ensuring the observance of human rights. The international community is accused of keeping quiet about human rights violations and the increasingly repressive actions of the government. UN reports on the government's involvement in politically motivated crimes were buried, it is claimed, or were published too late to have any impact as events were still unfolding.

The report is based on months of grassroots investigation, including interviews with more than 250 victims, eye-witnesses and officials. Human Rights Watch also reports of violence perpetrated by the paramilitary Republican Guard, a secret police unit called Simba and the secret service.

So far, no one on the government payroll has been punished for these crimes. HRW insists that this must happen, arguing that all crimes need to be prosecuted – no matter whether they were committed by the Congolese military, the police, Bemba's bodyguards or BDK adherents.

Shortly after the HRW report was pub­lished, the UN’s expert commission on Congo reported to the Security Council. Their paper accuses the government of the DRC of intentionally contributing to warfare in the country’s east by arming militias. MONUC-forces often get hold of weapons, which they then hand over to Congo’s regular army. Apparently, regular DRC troops then pass those weapons on to militias.

The UN report, moreover, confirms that Rwanda’s regular army is supporting Tutsi militias in the eastern provinces, whereas regular forces of the DRC are supporting Hutu groups. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reports that a UN official considers the data evidence of both governments active involvement in the conflict via militias. (cir)