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D.R. Congo: Protect Activists Returning From Exile

D.R. Congo: Protect Activists Returning From Exile

The Congolese government must ensure protection for two prominent human rights activists who have returned home from exile, Human Rights Watch said today.

The two human rights defenders from Goma, North Kivu province, fled the country in December and January with two other civil society activists after being threatened for denouncing human rights violations.

“These human rights defenders have come home to resume their vital work of protecting Congolese from abuse”, said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “Congolese authorities should welcome their return and ensure that they can work without threats or harassment”.

Richard Bayunda of the Center for Research on the Environment, Democracy and Human Rights (Centre de Recherche sur l'environnment, la démocratie et les droits de l'homme, or CREDDHO) and Sheldon Munihire B. Hangi, of Social Action for Peace and Development (Action social pour la paix et le développement, or ASPD) returned to Goma on November 5. The two other activists remain in exile.

In late 2004, Bayunda and Hangi denounced the distribution of weapons by provincial authorities to civilians, as well as war crimes committed by soldiers during combat in North Kivu. Afterwards, both received threats over the phone. Security agents looking for Bayunda came to his house, and unknown assailants tried to break into Hangi's home. Provincial political, military and security officials denied responsibility for the threats and harassment.

“Local officials belittled the flight of the activists saying they were just looking for an easy life in exile,” said Des Forges. “Yet despite opportunities to resettle in Europe, these two activists decided to return home. Congolese authorities must take human rights as seriously as do these activists”.

Human rights activists and journalists in Congo are regularly threatened and intimated for denouncing abuses and those who target them are almost never punished. On October 28, plainclothes security agents arbitrarily arrested Jean-Marie Kanku, the editor of L’Alerte, a Kinshasa-based newspaper that had published articles on a corruption scandal involving the security services. He was held for several days incommunicado, and then charged with “threatening state security.”

In July, Pascal Kabungulu Kibembi, a prominent human rights activist, was shot dead in his home in Bukavu by armed men. Following an international outcry, the governor of South Kivu set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the murder. The commission's mandate ended in early September, but no report has been published. Meanwhile, three people arrested in relation to the crime remain in detention without trial.

“The government keeps pointing to the commission of inquiry when asked about Kibembi’s murder, but so far no one has been brought to trial,” Des Forges said. “The international community should insist that those guilty of this crime be brought to justice”.

In addition to calling on Congolese authorities for action, Human Rights Watch urged the United Nations Mission in the Congo (MONUC) to monitor the situation of human rights defenders and to intervene to protect any who are threatened.

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