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Human Rights Watch raises alarm over serious rights violations by Felix Tshisekedi’s administration in DRC using COVID-19 as pretext

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The administration of President Felix Tshisekedi in the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken a serious downturn in respect for human rights in 2020, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The organization said Congolese authorities have cracked down on peaceful critics, journalists, and political party members, while using state of emergency measures imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to curb political protests. Dozens of people who have criticized government policies, including on social media, have faced intimidation and threats, beatings, arrests, and, in some cases, prosecution.

“The human rights gains of President Tshisekedi’s first year in office seem to be rapidly dissipating,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Tshisekedi should reverse course and stop this mounting repression of peaceful speech and assembly.”

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Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 people in Congo, including victims of abuse, lawyers, human rights and pro-democracy activists, and journalists. Since January, Human Rights Watch has documented at least 39 cases of threats and harassment related to free speech and media freedom across half of the country’s 26 provinces. In 17 of the cases, people were arrested, including 2 who remain behind bars. At least 11 people were arrested on charges of “contempt toward officials,” including provincial governors, parliament members, and, in one case, the president. Of the 19 journalists facing harassment, 8 were arrested.

Heri Kalemaza, a 33-year-old lawyer and spokesperson for the Congolese Party for Progress (PCP) in South Kivu province, has been detained since March 4 on charges of contempt toward the provincial governor. “I started receiving intimidating WhatsApp messages from the governor’s investigative cell telling me not to give any more broadcast interviews and stop criticizing the governor’s performance,” Kalemaza told Human Rights Watch. He was later arrested upon entering a radio studio. “The prosecutor told me to write a letter of apology to the governor in order to shut the case, but I refused because this would be incriminating myself.” Kalemaza is facing trial at Bukavu’s central prison.

In Kinshasa, Henri Magie, the vice president of the youth league for former president Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy (PPRD), was arrested on May 16 for “contempt” of President Tshisekedi. “Heavily armed police suddenly came out of two jeeps to arrest me like a bank robber for having said something on television,” he said. “I was sent to prison without even attending a hearing.” On July 9, a court sentenced him to 18 months in prison for suggesting in a media interview that Tshisekedi had not won the 2018 elections.

In Mongala province since May, the authorities ordered the temporary closure of at least four radio stations, revoked the credentials of six journalists, and suspended several broadcast programs of a political nature.

On May 9, Christine Tshibuyi, a Kinshasa-based reporter at the online outlet Actualité.cd, received threatening phone calls after she published an article about attacks on journalists in the town of Mbuji-Mayi. “Don’t mess around with the governor [of Kasaï-Oriental], we know where your family lives,” she said she was told over the phone. She said that the same day, a four-wheel-drive vehicle of the type commonly used by the Republican Guard rammed into the front of her car, forcing her to crash against a wall. She told Human Rights Watch that a man, flanked by four Republican Guards, then slapped her in the face, making her bleed. She said she reported the incident, but the authorities did not investigate.

Since March, when the government banned large public gatherings under the state of emergency to curb the spread of Covid-19, security forces have used excessive and lethal force to break up demonstrations and disperse crowds. On July 9, as mass protests took place in several cities against the appointment of a new president for the electoral commission, police killed at least one demonstrator in Kinshasa and two demonstrators in the southern city of Lubumbashi. Scores more were injured.

In Kinshasa, protesters beat and stoned a police officer to death while another officer was severely wounded. Groups of demonstrators also destroyed both public and private property. Protests in other cities were largely peaceful. The authorities should promptly investigate the use of lethal force in the Kinshasa and Lubumbashi protests, Human Rights Watch said.

Congo’s human rights minister, André Lite, told Human Rights Watch by phone in response to its findings that he “condemn[ed] these abuses.” “As the president urged, courts and tribunals have to be uncompromising in the respect of fundamental rights,” he said. With respect to courts convicting people for exercising their basic rights, Lite said: “We will put victims forward for presidential pardon to empty their criminal records and inform the Superior Council of Magistrates of these abuses to sanction magistrates where it is necessary.”

International human rights law recognizes that in the context of a serious public health emergency, restrictions on some rights can be justified when they are strictly necessary, proportionate, and nondiscriminatory. However, emergency measures should not allow authorities to ban or quell peaceful rallies for political reasons under the guise of protecting health.

The Congolese government needs to continue to respect the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said. When serious violations occur, the government is obligated to promptly and impartially investigate and take appropriate disciplinary or legal action, regardless of the rank or position of those responsible.

All baseless charges against journalists and peaceful critics should be dropped, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also take concrete measures, in line with regional and international human rights instruments, to protect journalists and make good on Tshisekedi’s pledge to turn the media into “a real fourth estate.” Congo ranks 150th in this year’s World Press Freedom Index, out of 180 countries. New legislation should repeal criminal defamation and ensure that factual accuracy and the public interest are defenses to defamation claims.

“President Tshisekedi should recognize that attacks on journalists and peaceful critics are an assault on democracy,” Fessy said. “Unless Tshisekedi stops resorting to his predecessor’s tools of repression, his assurances of respect for human rights will be nothing but empty promises.”

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