Bangui. Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila on Friday granted amnesty to detainees in the country ahead of a presidential election scheduled for November.
Among those pardoned are six pro-democracy activists, who were arrested in February as they prepared for a general strike calling on President Kabila to step down when his second mandate ends this year.
The six who are members of the youth activist group Struggle for Change (Lucha), were convicted in March of incitement to revolt and sentenced on appeal to six months in prison.
President Kabila, who has been in power since 2001 when he replaced his assassinated father, Laurent Desire Kabila, is required by law to step down at the end of his second term on December 19. But in May, the Constitutional Court said he could remain in power if a presidential election was not organised as per schedule.
President Kabila has been cracking down on the opposition, religious and civil society groups that have been mobilising against his intention for a third term.
There has been a pattern of arbitrary arrests and detentions by the National Intelligence Agency and trials based on trumped-up charges.
In a report last December, the UN human rights office in Congo said dozens of political opposition leaders, pro-democracy activists and human rights advocates had been arbitrarily detained.
The president ordered release of all prisoners who are female, handicapped, 65 or older, 30 or younger, or who were sentenced to less than three years, with the exception of fugitives and people convicted of serious crimes such as rape, murder, corruption, treason and genocide.
He also commuted the sentences of death row inmates to life, and existing life sentences to 20-year terms. The amnesty however only applies to people who have already been convicted.
Friday’s presidential clemencies come a day after a visit to Congo by UN Human Rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called on the Congolese government to release political prisoners.
UN envoy Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein told a press conference in Kinshasa on Thursday that he was concerned about reports of increasing harassment of civil society representatives and journalists, as well as the repression of voices opposed to the government .
While concluding a four-day mission to DR Congo, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, today commended the country’s efforts to strengthen human rights but cautioned that some of these advances may be under threat, especially what he saw as repression against opposition parties in the coming elections. While noting that important advances relating to impunity for sexual violence are in line with broader progress in the DRC since he had first visited the country, in another capacity, in 2004, he said that as crucial electoral deadlines approach, there is rising tension.
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