Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo should ensure an effective investigation into the apparent murder of four members of President Felix Tshisekedi’s political party, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
“The grim discovery of dumped bodies days after a political protest sends a chilling warning about the freedom of expression in Congo,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“As political tensions currently run high, no lead should be overlooked, and the authorities should pursue justice wherever the investigation takes them.”
The human rights organization said the investigation should be thorough, independent, and impartial and pursue credible information that others are still missing, possibly victims of enforced disappearances. “Investigators should also pursue information that the men found dead had been detained at a military-run facility in the southern city of Lubumbashi following a demonstration on July 9, 2020,” HRW added.
On July 8, members of former president Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD) and Tshisekedi’s political party Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) – both part of the ruling coalition – clashed in the streets of Lubumbashi. On July 9, mass protests took place in several cities against the appointment of a new president for the electoral commission. Several sources have confirmed that at least 16 people were arrested and held in military detention following the demonstration in Lubumbashi.
On July 12, the body of Dodo Ntumba, 49, was found floating in the Lubumbashi river. On July 13, the bodies of Mardoché Matanda and Héritier Mpiana, both 18, were recovered from the river. On August 3, family members of Danny Kalambayi, 29, found his body at a morgue nearly a month after they last saw him. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that all four bodies had traces of cuts and mutilation, which could be the result of torture. They were all members of Tshisekedi’s political party.
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed 39 family members of the victims, political party members, lawyers, activists, government officials, and medical, security, and judicial sources.
The organization quoted sources as confirming that some demonstrators were held in military custody following the protest but the exact number and what happened to them remain unknown.
The investigation should clarify whether the four men recently found dead were part of the group and if others are still unaccounted for and have been forcibly disappeared, Human Rights Watch said, adding that “it should also explain what legal power military forces were exercising when they detained the demonstrators.”
These deaths occurred in a context of growing repression since the start of the year, which Human Rights Watch recently documented. Political tensions and insecurity have also been mounting in the Haut-Katanga province, where civil society groups have repeatedly raised their concerns in recent months. Many of the political rifts fall along ethnic lines reigniting tensions between native Katangans and immigrants, and their descendants, from the Kasai region.
Haut-Katanga is the PPRD’s historic stronghold while the UDPS heartlands are in the neighboring Kasai region. Several people were injured in the scuffles on July 8, according to local human rights organizations, including some with machete wounds. The PPRD youth leader, Pathy Zingi, known as “Pathy Benz,” speaking to Human Rights Watch, denied allegations against him that he had provided party members with machetes.
During the July 9 protests, the police killed two demonstrators in Lubumbashi. Scores more were injured in the mayhem. There were also protests across the capital, Kinshasa, where at least one demonstrator was also killed and protesters beat a police officer to death while another officer was severely wounded.
“These killings seem to be part of a dramatic escalation in the political rivalries within the ruling coalition,” Fessy said. “The fate of these four men as well as that of those still allegedly missing should be fully investigated, and those responsible should be identified and prosecuted in fair trials.”