DR Congo

We will crush you - The restriction of political space in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Originally published


I. Summary

As they beat me with sticks and whips, the soldiers repeatedly shouted, "We will crush you! We will crush you!" Then they threatened to kill me and others who opposed Kabila.

-A political party activist detained and tortured in Kinshasa in March 2007 by President Kabila's Republican Guards

The 2006 presidential elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the first in over 40 years, raised hopes for stability and improved governance in this vast, war-torn nation. Yet in the two years following elections, there have been disturbing signs that Congo's democratic transition is not only fragile, but that the newly elected government is brutally restricting democratic space. The government of President Joseph Kabila has used violence and intimidation to eliminate its political opponents beginning in the immediate aftermath of the election's inconclusive July-August 2006 first round. In his first interview after his victory in the October runoff against former vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba, Kabila said that he would be "severe" in governing Congo. He has matched his actions to those words.

This report focuses on some of the most violent episodes of political repression in Kinshasa and the western province of Bas Congo during the two years following the 2006 elections. The brutal and repressive tactics used by President Kabila and his advisors are emblematic of the resort to violence to stifle opponents. During our research, Human Rights Watch received reports of other incidents of repression, often smaller in scale and sometimes less violent, that are not included here. The violence in eastern Congo, where the Kabila government is in a military confrontation with an insurgency led by former general Laurent Nkunda, has been documented in other Human Rights Watch reports.

The government's lack of popularity in western Congo, and the fear of losing power through a military overthrow, have dominated policy discussions amongst Kabila and his advisors in their first two years of administration. According to many military and intelligence officials and others close to Kabila who were interviewed by Human

Rights Watch, Kabila set the tone and direction of the repression. In giving orders, he spoke of "crushing" or "neutralizing" the "enemies of democracy," "terrorists," and "savages," implying it was acceptable to use unlawful force against them. Possibly due to a lack of capacity in the military and law enforcement services, Kabila's attempts to monopolize power were sometimes disorganized, though his intention to rid himself of perceived opponents was clear. As one disillusioned member of Kabila's inner circle remarked to Human Rights Watch, Kabila pursued an approach of "winner take all," leaving no room for other strong political opponents.

The worst of the repression took place in the capital, Kinshasa, and in the province of Bas Congo, areas where Kabila failed to win an electoral majority. In Kinshasa, Kabila launched what were in effect military operations (qualifying as internal armed conflict under international law) against his electoral rival Bemba in August 2006 and again in March 2007. Soldiers and Republican Guards interviewed by Human Rights Watch who participated in the military operations said that they had received and interpreted their orders in March 2007 as needing to "eliminate Bemba." The military operations against Bemba and his often ill-disciplined guards were brutal and sudden. The use of heavy weapons during the busy work day in central Kinshasa left hundreds of civilians dead through the indiscriminate use of force by both sides, and left many others injured.

In Bas Congo in February 2007 and March 2008, state agents acting under Kabila's authority used unnecessary or excessive force against Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK), a political-religious group based in Bas Congo that promoted greater provincial autonomy and gained significant electoral popularity. In August 2006, ahead of the runoff vote for president, the BDK allied themselves with Bemba. Since then the harsh conduct of government forces toward the BDK has increased. When BDK demonstrators protested, at times violently, against electoral corruption in early 2007, police and government soldiers shot or stabbed to death 104 BDK adherents and bystanders. In March 2008 police made a preemptive strike in anticipation of further protests, in what United Nations (UN) investigators said appeared to be a deliberate effort to wipe out the movement. Over 200 BDK supporters and others were killed and the BDK's meeting places were systematically destroyed.

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