Political deal hangs in the balance as activists languish in DRC jails

Association

Despite a political deal brokered by the Catholic Church on New Year's Eve, civil society in the DRC continues to come under significant pressure from the state. In particular, human rights organisations and social movements continue to face the threat of closure, public vilification and the targetting of their members and staff through arrests and travel bans. Prior to the deal being agreed, at the beginning of December authorities increased restrictions on fundamental freedoms in a calculated attempt to repress the many voices that oppose President Kabila continuing to rule beyond his mandate. On 1st December, the government declared illegal all organisations that were not formally registered. This move specifically targeted citizen movements, including the youth movements Lutte pour le Changement (Struggle for Change, LUCHA) and Filimbi, which are leading calls for democratic reform in the DRC. 

On 21st December, pro-democracy activist Luc Nkulula and 19 other LUCHA members were arrested during a peaceful sit-in in Goma, North Kivu province. Nkulula and a group of other activists were released on 28th December, but seven LUCHA activists remained in prison at the end of January, as local civil society groups continue to call for their release:

Authorities are also targetting international organisations like Human Rights Watch for shining a global spotlight on abuses in the DRC. In January, HRW's Central Asia Director Ida Sawyer was deported from the country, despiote holding a valid visa. Sawyer, who had already been expelled from the DRC in August 2016, was deported again on the grounds that she was illegally in the country. A government spokesperson denied that her visa had ever been renewed. Prior to coming back, Sawyer had made public how much she was looking forward to returning to the DRC.

While some in civil society are hopeful that the political deal can deliver on its promises, little progress had been made on its implementation over a month after it was agreed by the government, opposition parties and civil society. President Kabila himself has not yet signed the agreement, nor has he made any public endorsement of it, leading to speculation that its principal goal - the holding of elections in 2017 without Kabila's involvement - is already in doubt

Peaceful Assembly

December was a tumultuous and deadly month for pro-democracy protestors in the DRC. As the deadline for President Kabila to step down came and went, anti-government protests took to the streets of several cities in the DRC to whistle and call for the incumbent president to respect the constitution and step down. They were met with violence from security forces in Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma and elsewhere. An estimated 40 people were killed and over two hundred activists were arrested and detained. In an attempt to prevent the protests, authorities had banned all demonstrations in three locations in Kinshasa and had disrupted meetings of the political opposition, which were being held in private. While opposition demonstrations were banned, sympathisers of the ruling coalition were able to come together freely with the help of the police and local authorities. In late January, the UN joint human rights office published a report in which it documented a 30% increase in the number of human rights violations taking place in the DRC in 2016. The report confirmed that the sharp spike in abuses was linked to repression of democratic activism and the increased activity of some armed groups. 

Expression

Freedom of expression remains seriously curtailed in the DRC, despite the political deal agreed on New Year's Eve. Prior to the agreement, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)had expressed concern about restrictions on journalists' freedoms. Some journalists were either arrested or prevented from doing their job during the pro-democracy demonstrations in December. The UN has also heavily criticised the continuing obstacles to access to information, which has prevented the UN joint human rights office (UNJHRO) from properly conducting its investigations into recent events. The UNJHRO's director José Maria Aranaz called on the Congolese authorities to respet fundamental rights and freedoms during this "critical" period.

According to the New Year's Eve agreement, all media, including that affiliated to the opposition, which had previously been shut down should be reopened. This provision has also yet to be implemented. Among the media waiting for this measure to kick in are RFi, RTJ (Radio-Television Jua), Nyota TV, The voice of Katanga and RLTV Lisanga TV. The agreement also provides that the leadership of CSAC (or Higher Audiovisual and Communication Council) should be immediately replaced. The authoriteis have also not acted on this commitment.