A rights group said park rangers and environmental activists in the DRC are receiving death threats, after criticizing plans for oil exploration. Human Rights Watch said a British firm plans to explore for petroleum near and within Virunga National Park.
The park has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations, which says such sites "belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they're located." Virunga also is home to many of the last mountain gorillas.
The British oil firm SOCO International is currently operating in eastern Congo, which has been plagued for decades by violence and conflict.
Ida Sawyer said that testimony about the alleged threats is being collected.
"Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of Virunga Park rangers and human rights activists and environmental activists, who have been threatened, arbitrarily arrested or attacked after criticizing plans to explore for oil in the park."
Sawyer, Human Rights Watch's Senior Congo Researcher, based in Kinshasa, said, "We've called on Congolese authorities to investigate these acts of violence and intimidation - and to ensure that both the park rangers and the activists can express their views freely without risking their lives."
She said there are also many allegations of government officials receiving bribes.
Many of the rangers and activists, Sawyer said, believe oil exploration would harm Virunga National park and the wildlife, as well as communities near the park.
"However, many Congolese government officials support this exploration because of the potential financial gains oil could bring," she said.
She said that it's difficult to trace the origins of many of the threats. But says some - including death threats - allegedly were made at meetings with government officials or employees of the government's institute for the park.
The DRC government has not yet responded to the Human Rights Watch report. But SOCO International has. The group presented its findings to SOCO prior to their release to the media.
"They sent us a written response and they did deny any role in the threats, the violence or bribery. They said they would look into the allegations of bribery in particular according to their procedures and code of ethics. And then they did condemn the use of violence and intimidation," she said.
The company wrote that "there have been a number of false and inaccurate allegations leveled against SOCO International in recent years, particularly in the last month." It blames them on - what it calls - "false, distorted and/or exaggerated accounts" of SOCO activities in the DRC. It says those involved in alleged criminal activity have been "branded SOCO representatives... when simply they are not and have nothing to do with the company."
Human Rights Watch has urged the British Government to investigate the allegations of attempted bribes of park rangers and activists.
On April 15th, unknown gunmen shot and seriously wounded Virunga Park Director Emmanuel de Merode, a Belgian national. Military and justice officials are investigating. No arrests have been made so far. Human Rights Watch has also asked the Belgian government to investigate.
"Soon after that attack," Sawyer said, "a number of environmental and human rights activists, who've done a lot of work on the park, received threats."
She said those threats referred to the attack on de Merode. She quoted one as saying, "Don't believe that just because we failed to get your director that we are going to fail to get you."
Human Rights Watch said it also met with the governor of North Kivu State, Julien Paluku, who told the group that some government and security officials had been "manipulated." However, he said he did not know who was behind it.