The Republic of Congo’s refusal of entry to an Amnesty International research manager is another worrying sign of the government’s attempt to muzzle criticism ahead of presidential elections, Amnesty International said today.
Late on Friday, Amnesty's Deputy Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Stephen Cockburn, was refused entry at the border and sent back to Dakar, despite having a valid visa, invitation letter and confirmations of meetings with authorities including the Minister of Defence and officials from the Ministry of Justice.
Upon his arrival at Brazzaville airport, Mr Cockburn was taken out of the queue for passport control by a security official holding a piece of paper with his name and the names of two other Amnesty colleagues, who were not due to arrive until later. His passport was confiscated and he was held, but not mistreated, at the airport until Saturday morning, when he was placed on a return flight to Dakar. A document later provided to the airline referred to the motive for refusing entry as Amnesty’s "unwelcome" presence and indicated that the visa should not have been granted.
Amnesty was visiting Congo to meet the authorities, embassies and UN agencies to discuss human rights violations committed by the authorities and security forces, including in relation to forthcoming elections on 20 March. On 23 February the head of the police had written to Amnesty declining an invitation to meet the delegation, stressing his opinion that the organisation should not visit the country during a turbulent pre-electoral period, although he did not suggest the visit had been banned. The letter also criticised an Amnesty report on the expulsion of more than 180,000 DRC nationals in 2014.
Amnesty International’s Africa Research and Advocacy Director Netsanet Belay said:
"Stifling independent human rights monitoring is unacceptable, and will do little to build confidence as Congo prepares for elections, especially in a context where political opponents have been detained and protesters killed.
"The government should take all measures to ensure that these elections can be held in a climate that respects the freedom of all people to express their views, protest peacefully and monitor the human rights situation so that violations can be exposed and remedied."
Last October, Amnesty called on the security forces to refrain from using excessive force after they fired on crowds gathered in Brazzaville and Pointe Noire to demonstrate against proposed changes to the country’s constitution. Opposition groups reported that at least 18 people were killed.
Amnesty has also highlighted the detention of political opponents both before October’s constitutional referendum and in the run up to March's elections. Among those currently detained include Paulin Makaya, the leader of the political party Unis Pour le Congo, and Serge Matsoulé, Federal Secretary for Convention d'action pour la démocratie et le développement.
In October security forces surrounded the house of another opposition leader, Guy Brice Parfait Kolélas, without any judicial authority and did not let him leave for 12 days. In the same month six activists were arrested and sentenced to three months imprisonment for taking part in an unauthorised protest.