Citizens of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the DRC, should go to the polls in November to vote in a new President and members of parliament. Nevertheless, the country is rife with political tension: incumbent President Joseph Kabila, having served two consecutive terms in office, is bound by the constitution to step down in December; electoral preparations, including the revision of the electoral register, have yet to begin in earnest.
Moreover, President Kabila has indicated that he may not relinquish the Presidency when his term ends. In January of last year, his government attempted to change the electoral law to tie elections to the completion of a complex national census; this proposed delay of elections for at least three years sparked mass protests. The government has claimed that the only way to get electoral preparations started would be via a national dialogue convened by President Kabila, an idea which the opposition and civil society have roundly rejected as unfair and rigged.
In the meantime, authorities have cracked down on those calling for Kabila to step down using intimidation, violence and arbitrary arrests.
Incensed, the political opposition civil society, activists and students, called for a one-day general strike on February 16 to protest these delaying tactics. Just hours prior to the strike, six youth activists from the Fight for Change or LUCHA youth movement were arrested for allegedly helping to organize the stoppage. They join 19 other LUCHA members, who have been in prison since early 2015.
“The United States is troubled by the harassment and detention of peaceful activists and opposition leaders in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including those detained in connection with [the] general strike,” said State Department Spokesperson John Kirby in a written statement.
“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.
“We call on the government to respect the freedoms enshrined in its own Constitution, which was promulgated 10 years ago. We also call on the DRC to honor its international human rights obligations and immediately release all those being detained or, short of that, accord them the protections and fair trial guarantees to which they are entitled.”