21 February 2011
Human rights groups, of which some 50 signed a communiqué on 17 February to publicize their concerns, have been particularly wary since the June 2010 killing of Floribert Chebeya, head of a group called La Voix des sans voix (Voice of the Voiceless, VSV), who was never seen alive again after attending a meeting at police headquarters in Kinshasa.
The activists cited the case of Jean Claude Katende and George Kapiamba, respectively president and vice-president of the African Association for the Defence of Human Rights, who allegedly received death threats via text messages after giving a press conference where they spoke of “political intolerance”, government restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly and illegal detention of opposition figures.
“The state has a duty to protect its citizens. The government should understand that we are its partners, not its enemies. The security services do not understand the work of non-governmental organizations,” said Dolly Ibefo, VSV’s executive secretary.
Jonas Tshiombela and Robert Kabakela, the national coordinator and deputy, respectively, of the Nouvelle Société civile congolaise (NSCC), said they had been threatened and followed.
The NSCC and VSV both spoke out against constitutional reforms adopted in January 2010, which introduced, among other things, a presidential election comprising a single round of voting.
“Just before a press conference on 22 January, I received a phone call from a man describing himself as a [police or army] major, who told me, ‘If you don’t shut up, we will shut you up’,” said Tshiombela.
The NSCC also came under fire for organizing a petition calling for an international criminal tribunal in the DRC. “Millions of people have died here. They have a right to justice. If the government cannot create trust in its own justice system, we need an international tribunal. In 2003, President [Joseph] Kabila himself called for this. Since then, the matter has never been raised again,” added Tshiombela.
Human rights groups say they are unable to do their work. “This constant pressure is a hindrance. Our colleagues outside the capital also feel threatened. The situation is getting worse in this pre-electoral period,” said Rostin Manketa, deputy head of VSV.
“I cannot sleep at home any more. I feel very unsafe. I suspect any stranger who talks to me of having a hidden agenda. It is very hard to work under such conditions,” he added.
“We must show solidarity and try to get more involvement from the community, which should stand by us. We know they are trying to silence us, to infiltrate our organizations.
We recently found out that our network was infiltrated by state security agents. It’s worrying,” said Joséphine Ngalula, head of the Réseau action femme (Women’s Action Network).
With the help of the Carter Center, human rights groups have set up an alert system. As soon as a member feels threatened, is followed or has a meeting with officials that worries him, he or she sends a message by telephone, text or email, which is then sent to four different groups and sometimes to diplomatic missions.
“We have to show that we are not isolated, that when we are summoned [by the authorities] or feel directly threatened, several people are made aware,” said Ngalula.
“If we had had such a system in place last June, perhaps Floribert [Chebeya] would not be dead. We should have been alongside him that day,” lamented Sophie Borel, director of the Carter