Fighting and dying for human rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi is one of hundreds of human rights activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) who face arrest, harassment, threats and even death over their work.As head of the Goma-based Promotion of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights NGO (Promotion De La Democratie et Protection des Droits Humains) he has witnessed first-hand the increase in threats against activists and journalists in the DRC over the past yearJust last month, days before the DRC celebrated 50 years of independence, came the funeral of Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, the country’s most prominent human rights activist, whose body was found the day after he was summoned to meet with Kinshasa police.Floribert Chebeya was the executive director of one of the Congo’s largest human rights organizations and had been working on a number of sensitive affairs involving the head of Police General John Numbi. His body was found in his car early on 2 June.”Floribert Chebeya was not a politician, he was not opposed to the government or to the opposition. He was a man who was trying to extend freedom and promote respect for the rights of citizens,” Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi told Amnesty International when he visited the organization.”He defended people in Kinshasa, Bas-Congo and Equateur, not for political reasons, but for civic reasons and for the love of his country, of his fellow men, of his fellow citizens.”Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi met and worked with Floribert Chebeya Bahizire, while trying to raise public awareness about the importance of the 2011 presidential and national elections.”Floribert Chebeya’s capacity to inspire people to act and his capacity to organise successful action in defence of human rights and democracy might have upset people with bad intentions,” he said.”Negative people are unable to tolerate a man like Floribert Chebeya. That is what human rights defenders are afraid of in the DRC.”After he heard news of Floribert Chebeya’s death, Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi said he felt as though he had lost his voice. He, like other activists, felt anxious and intimidated.”The death of a great human rights activist is like cutting the head off human rights organizations,” he said “We do not believe that people will get going again immediately. If those implicated in the death of Floribert Chebeya and the disappearance of his colleague who was driving the vehicle, Fidele Bazana, are not brought before the courts in a serious manner, we fear that this might destroy or discourage the human rights movement in the DRC.””Because of this death, the death of a giant like Floribert, we fear that others will abandon human rights activism. They are going to ask themselves why defend human rights if there is a risk of being killed and the killers are not even brought to justice and the truth does not come out even when such a serious crime as this is committed.”As part of his work, Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi visits detention centres to monitor the conditions in which people are being held.He also visits secret prisons (military intelligence services, immigration services), which often escape the judiciary’s attention, to ask the security authorities to hand over detainees to the appropriate services.”The people in charge of some services think they are not accountable to the judiciary. It is a serious problem. The security forces often want to arrest people without taking into account that the power of arrest lies with the courts and tribunals.” he said.Since 2002, Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi has been detained several times for his work. In December 2005 he and some colleagues were kidnapped and taken to the T2 military intelligence detention centre in Goma where they were tortured. They were finally released after an appeal by Amnesty International.”When we were arrested and were ourselves beaten and tortured, we saw other people being treated in the same way, particularly at T2 and Chien Méchant (another military detention centre in Goma).””If you look at the officer who ties your hands behind your back, he slaps you. If you turn your head, he hits you again. This is inhuman and degrading treatment.”Despite being harassed, threatened, arbitrarily arrested and tortured, Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi is convinced that the work he does with PDH does is worthwhile.”Our organization’s work is beneficial and helps many victims. We believe that without it there would be massive human rights violations, many more than there are now. We have also had a positive response from the security services, police services and intelligence services in some cases. We think that the situation would be even more out of control if the organization was not active.”Politicians try to pressure us into abandoning human rights activism. We just want to help establish the rule of law and to build a country that respects human rights, without belonging to a political party or being the property of any particular group.”