By Human Rights Watch Press
Published November 3, 2008
Congolese state security forces have killed an estimated 500 people and detained about 1,000 more, many of whom have been tortured, in the two years since the 2006 elections that were meant to bring democracy to the politically volatile central African nation.
The brutal repression against perceived opponents began during the elections that brought Joseph Kabila to power, and has continued to the present.
‘We Will Crush You’: The Restriction of Political Space in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a 96-page report, documents the Kabila government’s use of violence and intimidation to eliminate political opponents. Human Rights Watch found that Kabila himself set the tone and direction by giving orders to “crush” or “neutralize” the “enemies of democracy,” implying it was acceptable to use unlawful force against them.
“While everyone focuses on the violence in eastern Congo, government abuses against political opponents attract little attention,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher in the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “Efforts to build a democratic Congo are being stifled not just by rebellion but also by the Kabila government’s repression.”
On the second anniversary of Kabila’s November 28, 2006 election victory, the Congo remains impoverished and in conflict. Those in western Congo who might challenge government policies face brutal repression, while in the east the armed conflict with renegade general Laurent Nkunda’s forces has resulted in horrific atrocities.
The report is based on months of extensive field research including interviews with more than 250 victims, witnesses, and officials. Human Rights Watch documented how Kabila’s subordinates worked through several state security forces – including the para-military Republican Guards, a “secret commission,” the special Simba battalion of the police, and the intelligence services – to crack down on perceived opponents in the capital, Kinshasa, and in Bas Congo province.
Following the 2006 elections, which were largely financed by international donors, foreign governments focused on winning favour with Kabila’s new government and kept silent about human rights abuses and the government’s increasingly repressive rule.
United Nations reports documenting government involvement in politically-motivated crimes were deliberately buried or published too late to have any significant impact on events, Human Rights Watch found.
The report says that state agents particularly targeted persons from Equateur province and others thought to support the defeated presidential candidate, Jean-Pierre Bemba, as well as adherents of Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK), a politico-religious group based in Bas Congo that promotes greater provincial autonomy and had considerable support in legislative elections.
At least 500 perceived opponents of the government were deliberately killed or summarily executed. In some of the most violent episodes, state agents tried to cover up the crimes by dumping bodies in the Congo River or by secretly burying them in mass graves. Government officials blocked efforts to investigate by UN human rights staff, Congolese and international human rights monitors, and family members of victims.
The detentions came in waves of arrests during the past two years. Detainees and former detainees described torture, including beatings, whippings, mock executions, and the use of electric batons on their genitals and other parts of their bodies.
Some were kept chained for days or weeks and many were forced to sign confessions saying they had been involved in coup plots against Kabila.
In mid-October 2008, state agents arbitrarily arrested at least 20 people in Kinshasa, the majority from Equateur province, including a woman and her three-month-old baby. Human Rights Watch estimated that at least 200 people detained in politically-related cases continue to be held without trial in prisons in Bas Congo and Kinshasa.
Armed groups associated with Bemba and BDK adherents also were responsible for killing state agents and ordinary people, including in incidents in Bas Congo in February 2007 and in Kinshasa in March 2007. In these cases, the police and army had a duty to restore order, but often did so with excessive force.
Congolese officials have refused to acknowledge abuses committed by state agents despite inquiries by the National Assembly, the media, and other citizens or groups.
The officials claimed that the victims were plotting coup attempts or otherwise threatening state authority, but they provided no convincing evidence of such charges and brought only a handful of cases to court.
Journalists who were linked to the political opposition or who protested abuses were threatened, arbitrarily arrested, and in some cases tortured by government agents.
The government closed down radio stations and television networks that were linked to the opposition or broadcast their views. Several of these stations were later permitted to operate again.
The National Assembly has tried to scrutinise the conduct of the government.
Opposition members sometimes boycotted sessions in protest of the abuses, with some limited impact. However, these efforts have not been enough to stop the killings or the wide-scale arbitrary arrests.
Human Rights Watch called on the government to establish a high-level task force under the authority of the Ministry of Justice with input from human rights experts to document the abuses by state agents and release those held illegally. It also called on Congo’s National Assembly to conduct a public inquiry into the abuses by state security agents and to prosecute those responsible.
“The Congolese people deserve a government which will uphold their democratic rights, not one that represses opponents,” said Van Woudenberg. “An important first step would be to bring to justice those officials responsible for killings and torture.”