The sentencing of six Congolese youth activists to two years in jail on 24 February is a clear sign of the growing assault on independent voices and civil society, and brings into further question the independence of the justice system in the DRC, said Amnesty International.
“The six must be immediately and unconditionally released, as they should never have been arrested in the first place. It is their right to peacefully protest delays in election preparations,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
The five men and one woman, Rebecca Kavugho, Serge Sivyavugha, Justin Kambale Mutsongo, Melka Kamundu, John Anipenda, and Ghislain Muhiwa, were arrested on 16 February – as they were preparing for a general strike called by opposition leaders and civil society organizations.
They are members of Lutte pour Le Changement (Lucha) a youth movement that was set up in 2012 in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu.
The strike, dubbed Ville Morte, or Dead City, was called to protest what the opposition and civil society organizations say is President Joseph Kabila’s plan to extend his rule by seeking an unconstitutional third term or delay the polls.
In a recent report, Treated like Criminals: DRC’s Rush to Silence Dissent, Amnesty Internationaldocumented how the authorities were using the justice system to crackdown on dissenting voices. This latest sentence is yet another example.
Amnesty International considers the six to be prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.
The six activists were convicted on the charge of attempting to incite public disobedience. Their lawyers say they will file an appeal.
President Joseph Kabila has been in office since 2001. The constitution limits a president to two consecutive seven year terms. As the November 2016 elections draw closer, calls for President Kabila to step down have intensified, as has the government’s crackdown on dissent.
LUCHA organizes sit-ins, demonstrations and other actions in its campaign for the authorities to observe the constitutionally-mandated electoral deadlines, and for the president to respect the term limits enshrined in the constitution.
The government has accused LUCHA of being a criminal movement, set up with the aim of disturbing public order. At least 19 of its members and sympathizers are currently in jail.