DRC: One Year on, ‘State of Siege’ used as a Tool to Crush Dissent
New briefing reveals how dozens of critics of the State of Siege have been arbitrarily detained in North Kivu and Ituri provinces; Despite the State of Siege being extended 22 times, the number of civilians killed by armed groups has doubled over the last year, according to the United Nations; Amnesty calls for the lifting of abusive restrictions and the release of all arbitrarily detained individuals.
A State of Siege, which is similar to a state of emergency, enforced in the North Kivu and Ituri provinces by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) authorities since May 2021 has been used as a tool to crush dissent, with two human rights activists killed by security forces and dozens of activists arbitrarily detained on trumped-up charges, Amnesty International said today in a new briefing.
The briefing, ‘Justice and freedoms under siege in North Kivu and Ituri’, details how military and police authorities have used sweeping powers to silence individuals deemed critical of the State of Siege, including members of parliament, pro-democracy activists and human rights workers, since the state of siege was first put in place on 3 May 2021. It also shows how the authorities are using military courts to prosecute state critics in unfair trials.
“In total disregard of the law, defence and security forces have been given broad powers that are not justified by the stated purpose of the state of siege, which they have used to silence anyone who demands accountability for the state’s actions in the conflict-stricken provinces of North Kivu and Ituri,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“President Felix Tshisekedi must lift all human rights restrictions and ensure that the State of Siege does not become a permanent regime by outlining a clear schedule for ending the restrictions.”
A steep increase in civilian deaths
President Tshisekedi declared that he introduced the State of Siege with the aim to combat armed groups and protect civilians. The number of civilian casualties from armed conflict in the region, however, has more than doubled in the past year.
Between June 2020 and March 2021, 559 civilians were killed amid armed conflict in North-Kivu and Ituri. According to the United Nations, the number of civilian deaths between June 2021 and March 2022 rose to at least 1,261.
In a report released in August 2021, the National Assembly’s Defence and Security Committee said that “killings, massacres, rapes, robberies… have intensified in the areas concerned.”
A vicious crackdown on critics
Military authorities in North Kivu and Ituri have used broad powers given to them under the State of Siege to suppress any form of protest or criticism. Human rights activists and MPs who have criticized the measure’s legality, duration or effectiveness have been labelled “enemies of the state” and subjected to arbitrary arrest and prosecution — and in two cases documented killed.
At least two peaceful activists have died as a result of authorities’ crackdown on critics, including 22-year-old Mumbere Ushindi, who was shot by police during a protest against state of siege’s failure to stop the killing of civilians. He died of his gunshot wounds on 24 January 2022. Before the demonstration, a police commander threatened to “crush” anyone who dared to protest.
La Fontaine Katsaruhande, a 21-year-old activist working with the Fight for Change (LUCHA) movement, had his right leg amputated after being shot by a policeman on 21 September 2021 at a peaceful protest also denouncing the continuation of civilian deaths despite the state of siege.
Four provincial MPs and one national MP have been arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted simply for speaking out against the deteriorating security situation and abuses of power by military and police authorities.
In addition, journalists have faced repeated attacks for doing their work, including by non-state actors, which the authorities have failed to investigate. At least three journalists have been killed in North Kivu and Ituri since the State of Siege was declared, according to Journalistes En Danger (JED), an organization working to protect journalists in the country.
The weaponization of military courts and disruption of the justice system
President Tshisekedi’s decision to order military courts to prosecute criminal cases against civilians, has drastically undermined the right to a fair trial. Military courts did not have the capacity to deal with such a significant increase in the number of cases coming to them. This has led to a drastic increase of the number of people in provisional detention waiting for their day in court and further deterioration of prison conditions. Military courts prosecuting and judging civilians is also contrary to international law.
Dozens of human rights activists have been arbitrarily detained on trumped-up charges, including 12 LUCHA activists arrested in Beni in November 2021, and all of whom were sentenced to one year in prison by a military court in April this year for “provocation to disobey the laws.”
The activists had staged a peaceful protest that called for an assessment of the State of Siege, which they said had failed to improve security for civilians. At least eight of the activists have suffered from sickness in prison due to poor detention conditions and ill-treatment.
“The increasing use of military courts has severely undermined fair trial rights,” said Deprose Muchena.
“The DRC authorities must immediately release all those who have been arbitrarily detained. It is shocking that the people of North Kivu and Ituri fear not only deadly attacks by armed groups, but also being prosecuted for speaking out to demand effective protection and accountability for these crimes.”
North Kivu and Ituri represent two of the five provinces that make up eastern DRC. Eastern DRC (including North Kivu and Ituri) is rich in natural resources including gold, Coltan, tin, wolframite, tungsten, oil, timber. The region has suffered from armed conflict since the 1990s. The violence has intensified in recent years, with more than 7,380 civilians killed between 2017 and April 2022, according to the Kivu Security Tracker.
On 3 May 2021, the President adopted a decree introducing a state of siege under the guise of protecting civilians. Under the state of siege, all local authorities and ordinary courts have been replaced by military and police officers, and given powers to restrict freedoms of expression, peaceful association, assembly and movement to the extent they deem them necessary.
The State of Siege was initially for a period of 30 days, with the possibility for the parliament to extend it for periods of two weeks at the request of the government. However, it has since been extended 22 times and is still in force until today.
Amnesty International has conducted 44 interviews with victims of abuses, lawyers, human rights activists and local MPs between August 2021 and April 2022 for this briefing. The organization also analyzed official documents and reports.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Amnesty International.