Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo charged six pro-democracy protesters Friday with inciting a revolt and “belonging to an illegal organization,” rights activists said, adding that the charges could bring several years in prison under the country’s penal code.
Police arrested the men earlier this week in the eastern city of Goma, along with two activists in the capital city of Kinshasa, for allegedly working with the opposition group Front Citoyen 2016 and helping to organize Tuesday's national strike, known as “Ville Morte" or “Dead City,” the activists said.
On Tuesday, pro-democracy activists in major cities demanded President Joseph Kabila respect constitutional law and step down as his second term ends in December this year, after he has taken several steps to try to prolong his ability to stay in power. The protesters shut down public transportation and schools in Kinshasa, French newspaper Le Monde reported.
Rights group Amnesty International on Wednesday demanded the men’s unconditional release. Their arrests fit a broader pattern of repression — including kidnappings and arrests — as elections slated for Nov. 27 draw nearer, according to Nicolas Krameyer, head of Amnesty’s individual liberties program. The eight activists are members of the pro-democracy youth movement Lucha (Fight for Change), which is part of G7, a coalition of opposition groups.
About 19 Lucha members have been in prison since the beginning of 2014, Krameyer said. “It’s a completely peaceful movement,” he told Al Jazeera. “They’re asking for free elections.”
Last September, Kabila suspended seven politicians known as the Group of 7, or G7, after they demanded he respect the constitution and relinquish power. Kabila’s detractors suspect he will increasingly try to cling to power as the end of his rule approaches. In January 2015, his government retracted a bill that would have prolonged Kabila’s ability to govern following protests that killed at least 42 people. While Kabila has refused to comment publicly on his plans, his government will move to overhaul its voter lists, which might delay the elections, Reuters reported.
The U.S. State Department joined Amnesty on Thursday in calling for the activists’ release. The department voiced concern about “the harassment and detention of peaceful activists and opposition leaders” in the country.
“These detentions stifle the free expression of diverse political viewpoints, contributing to a closing of political space while undermining the credibility of the Government of the DRC during the electoral period,” department spokesman John Kirby said in a news release.
The governor of North Kivu, the province where Goma is located, did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.
Goma residents predicted that the arrests won’t deter the activists. “The tensions are rising in Goma,” said Chrispin Mvano, who is a researcher based in North Kivu and supports the pro-democracy movement. “After these arrests, there will be more actions by the opposition and the civil society movement.”