Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Kidnappings for Ransom Are On the Rise in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Democratic Republic of Congo MapAt least 175 people have been kidnapped for ransom during 2015 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. Former and current members of armed groups appear responsible for many of the kidnappings.

The vast majority of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch were in Rutshuru territory, North Kivu province, in the eastern part of the country. At least three hostages were killed while another was fatally shot in a kidnapping attempt. One remains missing. Nearly all hostages were released after relatives or employers paid ransom. Twenty of the victims were Congolese and international aid workers.

“The alarming increase in kidnappings is a grave threat to the people of eastern Congo,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Congolese authorities should urgently establish a special police unit to help rescue hostages and investigate and prosecute those responsible.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 45 former hostages and witnesses in North Kivu between May and December. They said that the kidnappers typically operate in groups of up to a dozen or more people, and are often heavily armed with Kalashnikovs and other military assault weapons. Many wear military clothes and appear to belong, or to have belonged, to one of the many armed groups active in eastern Congo.

The kidnappers often followed a similar procedure, beating, whipping, or threatening their hostages with death, demanding that they call their relatives or employers to press them to pay for the person’s release. The kidnappers often used the victims’ cell phones or their own to negotiate the ransom payments. Sometimes the kidnappers abducted a single hostage, in other cases, a group.

In one example, on September 2, armed men kidnapped a 27-year-old student near the general hospital in Goma and took her to a remote forest location, where she was held with other hostages. The kidnappers beat and abused the hostages, including burning them with bayonets heated in a fire. “When we asked for food, they chose a man among us and cut his throat, killing him,” she told Human Rights Watch. “‘If you want to eat, here’s the meat,’ they told us.” She was held for nine days, and released after her family paid a ransom.

In the cases Human Rights Watch documented, kidnappers demanded between US$200 and US$30,000 per hostage, though the amounts paid were often much lower than the amount sought, according to relatives and former hostages.

The ransom payments often caused severe financial hardship for families. One man had to sell his farmland to pay off the money his family had borrowed to pay for his release, leaving his family with no source of income.

Kidnappers also targeted national and international aid workers, contract staff working for the United Nations, and drivers for a major transportation company. In all cases they were later released. No information was made public on whether ransoms were paid.

In most of the cases Human Rights Watch documented, relatives of the hostages did not inform police or other authorities about the kidnapping, either because they believed they would get no assistance or because they feared that it might make matters worse and that they would face further extortion from the authorities for any assistance provided. One former hostage said that when her mother told a judicial official in Goma that her daughter had been kidnapped, his only response was that the mother should “go pay.”

At least 14 people were kidnapped close to areas where Congolese soldiers were based, leading some of the victims and their families to speculate that the soldiers may have been complicit. Human Rights Watch found no credible evidence indicating that Congolese soldiers participated in the kidnappings, though some of those involved appear to be members or former members of armed groups that Congolese army officers had armed or supported in the past.

One of the implicated groups is the Force for the Defense of the Interests of Congolese People (FDIPC), which collaborated with the Congolese army during military operations against the M23 rebel group in 2012 and 2013, according to Human Rights Watch and UN research. Former hostages and local authorities told Human Rights Watch that FDIPC fighters and former fighters were responsible for some of the kidnappings.

On April 14, 2015, Congolese authorities arrested FDIPC’s military commander, Jean Emmanuel Biriko (known as Manoti), his wife, and a dozen of his fighters and charged them with kidnapping, among other crimes. Their trial began a day later in a military court in the town of Rutshuru. On May 18, following deeply flawed proceedings in which the rights of the accused were violated, the court convicted Manoti and 10 of his co-accused and sentenced them to death for belonging to a criminal gang. Although the death penalty is still permitted in Congo, there has been a moratorium on executions since 2003. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inhumane and irrevocable punishment.

During the trial, Manoti alleged that he collaborated with several Congolese army officers, including one he said was involved in the kidnapping incidents. Human Rights Watch has not been able to identify any judicial investigations into the alleged role played by these or other army officers, although government and military officials know of these allegations. A high-ranking army intelligence officer acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that Manoti “might have worked with some of the military” during the kidnapping incidents.

The arrest of Manoti and his men did not end the kidnappings. The majority of cases Human Rights Watch documented in 2015 occurred after their arrest. While Congolese authorities say they have arrested other alleged kidnappers, none have been brought to trial.

Citing the “immeasurable scale” of kidnappings in eastern Congo, the National Assembly’s Defense and Security Commission held a hearing on December 3 with the Vice Prime Minister and Interior Minister Evariste Boshab about the government’s response. Boshab replied that the situation is “extremely worrying” and “among the biggest security challenges confronting the government today.”

Three commission members said it was agreed that a parliamentary commission of inquiry would be established to investigate the kidnappings and possible complicity by government and security officials, and to assess what has already been done and make recommendations.

Human Rights Watch urged the commission to endorse the creation of a special police unit to document and respond to kidnapping cases; identify and arrest alleged kidnappers; report alleged complicity between kidnappers and officials; and work with judicial officers to bring those found responsible to justice in fair and credible trials.

“Putting an end to the kidnapping threat should be a top priority for the Congolese government,” Sawyer said. “The authorities not only need to bring those responsible to justice in fair trials, but also to uncover and act against any officials involved.”

Press Release from Human Rights Watch.

Click here for more Human Rights Watch reporting on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.



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