Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

Congo-Kinshasa: Outspoken Lawmaker Gets 3-Year Sentence - Freedom of Expression, Peaceful Assembly Under Attack

press release

Kinshasa — Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo should immediately drop the apparently politically motivated case against a member of parliament. Muhindo Nzangi was sentenced to three years in prison over comments he made on a radio program in proceedings that did not meet international fair trial standards. His prosecution reflects a broader government crackdown on free expression in the country.

On August 13, 2013, two days after speaking on a radio program in the eastern city of Goma, Nzangi was tried, convicted, and sentenced for endangering internal state security. On August 20, police violently disrupted a peaceful sit-in by dozens of Nzangi supporters outside the North Kivu governor's office in Goma. The police beat several protesters and arrested five, who were threatened with rebellion charges, though all were released by the next day. Nzangi is a member of the Movement for Social Renewal (Mouvement social pour le renouveau, or MSR), one of the largest political parties in the ruling presidential majority (Majorité présidentielle, or MP)coalition.

"A member of parliament was arrested, summarily tried and sent off to prison solely for expressing his views," said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "This sadly is just the latest attempt by government officials to use the courts to silence dissent."

Congolese authorities should drop their questionable case against Nzangi and end the crackdown against his supporters, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented 84 cases since May 2012 in which politicians, political party activists, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested or threatened by the authorities because of their political views or published opinions.

Nzangi, a member of parliament from Goma, participated in a two-and-a-half-hour debate on Radio Kivu 1 on August 11. He and the other participants discussed the crisis concerning the M23, a Rwanda-backed rebel group active in North Kivu province, and the role of civil society.

Nzangi said that the Congolese people should call on the government to end talks with the M23 rebels in Kampala, Uganda and continue military operations against them. He urged people to direct their pressure toward Congolese President Joseph Kabila as well as the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUSCO, by holding "peaceful actions" such as marches and sit-ins. He acknowledged the risk of demonstrations turning violent and said that angry demonstrators may be tempted to throw stones at MONUSCO vehicles, but called for advance measures to be taken to prevent and control such a risk.

Nzangi told Human Rights Watch that shortly after the radio debate he received a call from someone who warned him: "The president is very upset with you. Flee if you can."

Hours later, Nzangi was arrested. He was flown to the capital, Kinshasa, and charged with endangering internal state security, revealing defense secrets, and insulting the president. Because he was allegedly "caught in the act" (flagrante delicto), Nzangi was not protected by parliamentary immunity. His trial before the Supreme Court began immediately, denying him the right to have adequate time to prepare a defense.

The day after Nzangi's conviction, his political party suspended its participation in the ruling coalition and publicly condemned the "parody of justice." Following a meeting between MSR members and Kabila on August 16, the party announced it would resume participation in the coalition.

International law provides that everyone convicted of a crime has a right to appeal their conviction to a higher tribunal. Nzangi was tried by the Supreme Court, yet Congolese law only permits reconsideration of Supreme Court verdicts if there is new evidence and the minister of justice and human rights requests the Supreme Court to reexamine the case.

Following a promise made during his state of the nation address on December 15, 2012, Kabila issued an ordinance in June outlining the organization of national consultations that would bring together all sectors of society to "reflect, exchange and debate, in all liberty and without constraint, the ways and means possible for consolidating national cohesion." The consultations are due to start on September 4.

"If President Kabila is serious about creating open dialogue, a first step should be to let politicians, journalists, activists and others say what they think without risking jail," Sawyer said. "Everyone who is locked up for their peaceful political views should immediately be released and charges dropped."

Government Efforts to Silence Dissenting Voices or Settle Scores

The 84 cases documented by Human Rights Watch since May 2012 involved 68 people who were arbitrarily arrested and 16 others who were allegedly threatened or beaten by state agents. The victims were journalists, human rights activists, political party activists, and political leaders who appear to have been targeted because they participated in demonstrations or publicly expressed views at odds with local, provincial, or national officials. Just over half of those detained were released within 48 hours, often after paying a fine or after a human rights organization intervened. Others were held for several weeks or months.

In many cases, state security forces beat those detained during arrest or while they were in custody, and took their mobile phones, money, and other possessions. In the majority of cases Human Rights Watch documented, those arrested were never brought before a judge or formally charged. In 16 cases, those arrested were tried and convicted in trials that did not appear to meet international fair trial standards.

Twenty-two of the cases examined by Human Rights Watch involved journalists who were threatened, beaten, or detained for reporting on the political opposition or other events that government officials or state agents did not want to be publicized. A female journalist told Human Rights Watch that in November 2012 she was beaten with batons, punched, slapped, and kicked by policemen while reporting on a demonstration in Kinshasa protesting the fall of Goma to M23 rebels. The police accused her of writing in her notebook that the police were threatening the protesters. On March 10, police and Republican Guard soldiers beat or threatened four journalists for covering the opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi's return to Kinshasa from South Africa.

Security forces have also beaten or detained political party activists during peaceful demonstrations. During the summit of francophone countries in Kinshasa in October 2012, 14 opposition supporters were arrested near Tshisekedi's home as they prepared to accompany his convoy to a meeting he was to have with the French president, François Hollande. Most were badly beaten and detained for several days, without being brought to trial.

Detention of Eugène Diomi Ndongala

Eugène Diomi Ndongala, a former member of parliament and minister, has been detained since April in another apparently politically motivated case to silence dissent. He is awaiting trial.

Diomi is the president of the opposition Christian Democrats (Démocratie chrétienne) political party and a founding member of the Popular Presidential Majority (Majorité présidentielle populaire) - a pro-Tshisekedi political alliance. Diomi was elected to parliament in Kinshasa in 2011, but boycotted parliamentary debates and votes to protest the presidential election that was widely criticized as fraudulent and lacking credibility. Following a request from the attorney general, the parliament voted to lift Diomi's parliamentary immunity on January 8.

On January 18, an arrest warrant was issued, charging Diomi with having repeated sexual relations with two under-age girls in June 2012. Diomi's lawyer told Human Rights Watch that for the next two-and-a-half months, the authorities pressured Diomi to accept a deal in which charges would be dropped if Diomi agreed to take his seat in parliament. When Diomi refused, he was arrested on April 8.

Three days later, government officials held a news conference, accusing Diomi of plotting to assassinate the president and prime minister. They displayed a machete, empty bottles, and gasoline, which they said Diomi and 13 others planned to use to make Molotov cocktails. Diomi was never officially charged with these offenses.

Congolese law specifies that alleged perpetrators of sexual violence should be tried within three months after judicial authorities are notified of the case. More than four months have already passed since Diomi's arrest. Because of his prolonged absence, on June 15 Diomi's mandate as a member of parliament was invalidated.

A year earlier, in June 2012, Diomi disappeared for four months. He reappeared in October and later told Human Rights Watch that he had been held in secret detention centers by Congo's National Intelligence Agency (Agence Nationale de Renseignement) and questioned and threatened about his political activities - a charge the agency denies.

Diomi is in Kinshasa's central prison, despite three court orders from Congo's Supreme Court to hold him under house arrest pending adjudication of his case. The attorney general told Human Rights Watch on August 21 that Diomi is no longer a member of parliament and therefore does not have the right to be placed under house arrest instead of being held in prison. The attorney general also said that he is empowered to decide how to execute Supreme Court orders. He said that Kinshasa's central prison "was the only residence [he] had available" and that he could not allow Diomi to go elsewhere, where he might escape.

Supreme Court officials told Human Rights Watch that there is no legal basis for the attorney general's refusal to execute the court's orders. They said that Diomi should be under house arrest because he was a member of parliament at the time the alleged crime was committed, and that the fact that his status was lifted is irrelevant.

Diomi has suffered from health problems while in detention. His lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Diomi has lost full functioning of his arm because of nerve problems, and that the prison hospital center was unable to provide the necessary treatment. The prison director told Human Rights Watch that he has not allowed Diomi to seek treatment elsewhere because of concerns that Diomi would use the time in a hospital outside of the prison for political activities.

During a Supreme Court hearing on August 26, Diomi's trial was postponed for a third time, until September 16. Diomi's lawyer told Human Rights Watch that Diomi was not provided with transportation to go from the prison to the court for the hearing and had to make his own arrangements. By the time he reached the court, the trial had already been postponed due to his absence.

The attorney general should immediately carry out the Supreme Court's order to allow Diomi to be placed under house arrest, ensure that he has appropriate medical care while in custody, and is quickly brought to trial or the charges dropped.

Imprisonment of 12 Bandundu Association Members

In Congo's western province of Bandundu, 12 members of the Association for the Defense of the Interests of Bandundu City (Association pour la défense des intérêts de la Ville de Bandundu, ADIVB) were arrested and convicted for planning to hold a demonstration, in violation of their right to peaceful assembly. As required under Congolese law, they had informed Bandundu's interim mayor on March 22 that they were planning a demonstration on March 27 to protest alleged bad management by Bandundu's governor.

Three members were arrested on March 25, before the march took place. Nine others who came to their aid were also arrested and detained, accused of trying to help their colleagues escape. On April 12, the 12 were each sentenced to 20 years in prison for "tribalism," attempted escape, and criminal conspiracy.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the 12 in prison in Bandundu in June. All of them, including a 70-year-old man, said they had been beaten by policemen. One had lost a tooth from the beatings, and another needed seven stitches on his head after police beat him with a club.

A member of the group told Human Rights Watch that they believed the charges were brought because they had criticized the governor. The group had conducted audits of provincial government offices at the governor's request, he said. "But when we looked into his own management and asked for explanations, the governor decided to sanction us."

On May 3, 227 Congolese nongovernmental organizations issued a news release condemning the verdict, saying it "followed a speedy trial, characterized by charges of corruption, influence peddling, and manipulation of justice in order to obtain a guilty verdict, at any cost."

Bandundu's court of appeals reduced the sentences to between 5 and 12 months. The appellate court then suspended the chief judge of Bandundu's high court, which had issued the trial verdict, for failing to justify his ruling.

On August 24, three ADIVB members were released after serving their five-month sentences. During a hearing at the Supreme Court on August 26, the prosecutor said he was favorable to the nine other ADIVB members' request for provisional release. They are now awaiting the decision of the Supreme Court judges.

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