Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo arrested seven activists on Wednesday in the eastern city of Goma after a sit-in in front of MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo. The activists read out a memorandum demanding the release of their fellow activists in the capital, Kinshasa, sang protest songs, and displayed banners with messages such as "Release Our Friends" and "Activism is Not a Crime."
"We were peacefully singing in front of MONUSCO," an activist from the Filimbi youth movement who escaped arrest told Human Rights Watch. "As we started to leave, police arrived and encircled us. Then they came after us and we ran toward the base. They arrested seven of us and drove them off in a private jeep."
One of the detained activists said that they were taken to the police station at the mayor's office, where police kicked them and hit some of them with the butt of a gun.
The activists from the Filimbi and LUCHA RDC Afrique youth movements - Christophe Muissa, Patrick Kambale Nguka, Eustache Hangi Kyaviro, Jackson Lumoo Hangi, Urbain Mesi Mumbere, Espoir Muhimuka, and Emmanuel Binyenye - were released later that afternoon.
The activists had organized their protest to support Filimbi's national coordinator, Carbone Beni, and Filimbi activists Grâce Tshunza, Mino Bompomi, Cédric Kalonji, and Palmer Kabeya, who went to court in Kinshasa that day. Detained since December, they are accused of "insulting the Head of State" and "disturbing public order through propaganda of false information," among other charges.
During the court proceedings, which Human Rights Watch observed, the activists' lawyers denied the charges, saying they were simply relaying a message from the Catholic Church's Lay Coordination Committee, which had called for a peaceful protest on December 31 against President Joseph Kabila staying in power past his constitutionally mandated two-term limit. Congolese authorities brutally repressed that demonstration and two more that followed.
The defense also argued that statements the defendants had made under torture in incommunicado detention should be considered null and void. The court rejected their motion on procedural grounds.
The activists had previously been denied provisional release, despite Beni's deteriorating health. The trial is due to resume on July 19. Authorities should finally end their suffering, drop these politically motivated charges, and release them.