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Republic of the Congo

Executive Summary

The Republic of the Congo is a presidential republic in which the constitution vests most decision-making authority and political power in the president and prime minister. In 2015 the country adopted a new constitution that extends the maximum number of presidential terms and years to three terms of five years and provides complete immunity to former presidents. In 2016 the Constitutional Court proclaimed the incumbent, Denis Sassou N’Guesso, the winner of the 2016 presidential election, despite opposition and international criticism of electoral irregularities. The government last held legislative and local elections in 2017, with legislative election irregularities sufficient to restrict the ability of citizens to choose their government. While the country has a multiparty political system, members of the president’s Congolese Labor Party and its allies retained 68 percent of legislative seats, and Congolese Labor Party members occupied almost all senior government positions.

National police, gendarmes, and the military have responsibility for law enforcement and maintenance of order within the country. The national police maintain internal security and report to the Ministry of Interior. The gendarmerie reports to the Ministry of Defense and conducts domestic paramilitary and law enforcement activities. The army, navy, and air force, which also report to the Ministry of Defense, secure the country from external threat but also conduct limited domestic security activities. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. Police and gendarmes committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings including extrajudicial killings by the government or on behalf of government; cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government, including by Congolese peacekeepers deployed to UN missions; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; political prisoners or detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; substantial interference with the freedom of association; restrictions on political participation where the government is unelected or elections have not been found to be genuine, free, or fair; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting indigenous people; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.

The government took limited steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses, and official impunity was a problem.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were reports on social media of the government or its agents committing arbitrary or unlawful killings; however, for such reports (besides those specified below), no independent confirmation was possible, leading to uncertainty regarding the frequency of the incidents and the number of persons arbitrarily deprived of life. In some cases the Ministry of Justice coordinated with the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense to investigate security force involvement in the deaths of citizens and pursued prosecution.

Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report deaths resulting from abuse in prisons and pretrial detention centers (see section 1.c.).

In September a woman died in the southern town of Nkayi, allegedly due to injuries sustained during a beating by security forces for not wearing a mask. The Ministry of Justice began an inquiry, and parliament organized special hearings with the minister of defense on the alleged killing. Security forces placed at least one gendarme in custody.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution prohibits torture, and the law contains a general prohibition against assault and battery, but there is no legal framework specifically banning torture. There were reports on social media of the government or its agents meting out cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment to detainees or convicts. No independent confirmation was possible, leading to uncertainty regarding the frequency of the incidents and the number of persons abused.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were open allegations, submitted in previous years, of sexual exploitation and abuse by Congolese peacekeepers deployed to the UN mission to the Central African Republic, including six from 2019, two from 2018, two from 2017, nine from 2016, and one from 2015. Alleged offenses included rape of children, sexual assaults, exploitative relationships, and transactional sex. The Congolese Armed Forces (FAC) do not maintain a separate military justice system. In most cases the military handles allegations of abuse by soldiers outside the country through administrative procedures, which often include lengthy detentions. The FAC reported that all personnel involved in allegations in the UN peacekeeping deployments in the Central African Republic received legal or administrative discipline in line with these administrative procedures. As of September the government had not provided actions taken regarding these offenses to the United Nations.

Impunity was a significant problem in the security forces, and officials took steps to prosecute or punish offenders. Abuses are investigated by the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Justice.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions were harsh and life threatening due to inadequate sanitary conditions, gross overcrowding, and a severe deficit of medical and psychological care.

Physical Conditions: As of September the Brazzaville Prison, built in 1943 to accommodate 150 inmates, held more than five times its designed capacity, including women and minors. The Pointe-Noire Prison, built in 1934 to hold 75 inmates, held more than six times its designed capacity. In addition to these official prisons, the government’s intelligence and security services operated detention centers and security prisons that were inaccessible for inspection.

Authorities generally maintained separate areas within facilities for minors, women, and men in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire. In Brazzaville, while these areas were separate, they were sometimes easily accessible with no locked entryways. In the other 10 prisons throughout the country, authorities sometimes held juvenile detainees with adult prisoners.

Prison conditions for women were generally better than those for men. There was less crowding in the women’s cells. Authorities held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. In Brazzaville authorities confined and treated prisoners with illnesses in one area but allowed them to interact with other inmates.

In the Brazzaville Prison, conditions for wealthy or well connected prisoners generally were better than conditions for others.

There were several reported deaths resulting from abuse, neglect, and overcrowding in prisons and pretrial detention centers. A local NGO reported that figures on the number and causes of death while in custody were unavailable.

In Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, authorities equipped the prisons with some mattresses and prisoner uniforms. Most inmates, however, slept on the floor on cardboard in small, overcrowded cells that exposed them to disease. The prisons lacked drainage and ventilation, and they had poorly maintained lighting with wiring protruding from the walls. Basic and emergency medical care was limited. Medical personnel at the Brazzaville Prison cited tuberculosis, dysentery, malaria, and HIV/AIDS as the most common maladies affecting prisoners. Authorities did not provide specialized medical care to prisoners with HIV/AIDS, nor were HIV tests available in prisons. Authorities took pregnant women to hospitals to give birth, and authorities sometimes allowed them to breastfeed their infants in prison. Access to social services personnel was severely limited due to insufficient staffing, overcrowding, and stigmatization of those with mental health problems. Prison authorities permitted outdoor exercise intermittently.

Prison inmates reportedly received, on average, two daily meals consisting of rice, bread, and fish or meat. The food provided in prisons did not meet minimum caloric or nutrition requirements; however, prison authorities usually permitted inmates’ families to supply them with additional food. Authorities permitted women to cook over small fires in a shared recreational space. The Pointe-Noire Prison occasionally had running water. All of the prisons supplied potable water to inmates in buckets.

Administration: Prison rules provide for prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, but officials did not respect this right. Authorities did not investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions brought to them by NGOs and detainees’ families. Prisoners had weekly access to Christian religious services only.

Access to prisoners generally required a communication permit from a judge. The permit allowed visitors to spend five to 15 minutes with a prisoner, although authorities usually did not strictly enforce this limit. In most cases visits took place in either a crowded open area or a small room with one extended table where approximately 10 detainees sat at a time. A new permit is technically required for each visit, but families were often able to return for multiple visits on one permit. Since many prisoners’ families lived far away, visits often were infrequent because of the financial hardship of travel.

Independent Monitoring: The government provided domestic and international human rights groups with limited access to prisons and detention centers. Observers generally considered the primary local NGO focused on prison conditions independent; authorities, however, denied it access to the interior of several prisons on multiple occasions.

Other human rights NGOs that monitored detention conditions requested letters of permission from the Ministry of Justice to visit prisons. Their repeated requests went unanswered.

Representatives of religiously affiliated charitable organizations visited prisons and detention centers for charitable work and religious counseling.

Authorities granted diplomatic missions access to both prisons and police jails to provide consular assistance to their citizens.

Improvements: In June the government rehabilitated and reopened a detention center in the city of Ouesso.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but local NGOs reported arbitrary arrest continued to be a problem. The constitution and law provide detainees the right to challenge the legal basis of their detention before a competent judge or authority, but the government generally did not observe the law. Some members of the security forces acted independently of civilian authority, committed abuses, and engaged in malfeasance.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The constitution and law require that a duly authorized official issue warrants before officers make an arrest, that a person be apprehended openly, that a lawyer be present during initial questioning, and that detainees be brought before a judge within three days and either charged or released within four months. The government habitually violated these provisions. There is a bail system, but with 70 percent of the population living in poverty, most detainees could not afford to post bail. There is an option for provisional release, but officials usually denied these requests, even for detainees with serious medical conditions. Authorities sometimes informed detainees of charges against them at the time of arrest, but the filing of formal charges often took at least one week. There were reports authorities arrested detainees secretly and without judicial authorization and sometimes detained suspects incommunicado or put them under de facto house arrest. Police at times held persons for six months or longer before filing charges. Observers attributed most administrative delays to lack of staff in the Ministry of Justice and the court system. Family members sometimes received prompt access to detainees but often only after payment of bribes. The law requires authorities to provide lawyers at government expense to indigent detainees facing criminal charges, but this usually did not occur.

The law states authorities may hold a detainee for a maximum of 48 to 72 hours in a police jail before an attorney general reviews the case. Thereafter, authorities must decide to release or to transfer the individual to a prison for pretrial detention. Authorities generally did not observe the 72-hour maximum and frequently held detainees for several weeks before an attorney general freed or transferred them to a prison to await trial. The law states a defendant or accused person may apply for provisional release at any point during his or her detention, from either an investigating judge or a trial court, depending on the type of case. The law states that provisional release should generally be granted, provided the judicial investigation is sufficiently advanced and the accused does not pose a risk of suborning witnesses or a threat to public order. This provision of the law was not respected.

Arbitrary Arrest: Reports suggested arbitrary and false arrests continued to occur.

Pretrial Detention: Under the law the four-month pretrial detention period is extendable for two additional months with judicial approval. The law is not clear whether the two-month extension is renewable; however, judges often renewed the two-month extension period. Between 60 and 75 percent of detainees in prison were pretrial detainees. Prison authorities stated the average pretrial detention for nonfelony cases lasted one to three months and for felony cases at least 12 months. Human rights activists, however, stated the average was much longer for felony cases, commonly exceeding a year, and sometimes exceeding the maximum sentence for the alleged crime.

Lengthy pretrial detentions were due to the judicial system’s lack of capacity and, according to observers, a lack of political will to address the problem. The law defines three levels of crime: misdemeanors (punishable by less than one year in prison), delicts (punishable by one to five years in prison), and felonies (punishable by more than five years in prison). Criminal courts try misdemeanor and delict cases regularly. The judicial system, however, suffered from a serious backlog of felony cases. By law criminal courts must hear felony cases four times per year, but the government held only one criminal session in each of the five appeals courts and continued to hold persons accused of felonies in pretrial detention pending trial.

Detainees Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest, arbitrary detention, and false arrest and provide detainees the right to challenge the legal basis of their detention before a competent judge or other authority. If an investigating judge determines a detainee to be innocent, his or her release is promptly ordered, and he or she is entitled to file suit with the Administrative Court. The government, however, generally did not observe this law. Local human rights NGOs reported numerous occasions when officials denied detainees in Brazzaville the right to challenge their detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The constitution and law provide the framework for an independent judiciary, but the government did not always respect judicial independence and employed political influence at times. Corruption also undermined judicial independence. Freedom House noted the judiciary was dominated by allies of the president. Authorities generally abided by court orders; however, judges did not always issue direct court orders against accused authorities.

In rural areas traditional courts continued to handle many local disputes, particularly property, inheritance, and witchcraft cases, as well as domestic conflicts that could not be resolved within the family.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial presided over by an independent judiciary, but authorities did not always respect this right. Appeals courts existed in five departments–Brazzaville, Pointe-Noire, Dolisie, Owando, and Ouesso–and each had authority to try felony cases brought within its jurisdiction.

Under the law all defendants must be informed promptly and in detail of the charges, with free interpretation as necessary, and have a right to a fair and public trial in all criminal cases. Defendants in all criminal trials enjoy the presumption of innocence and have the right to be present at their trials and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, although this did not always occur. The law obligates the government to provide legal assistance to any indigent defendant facing serious criminal charges, but such legal assistance was not always available because the government did not generally pay for public defenders.

Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. They also have the right to confront or question accusers and witnesses against them and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt and have the right to appeal. The government generally abided by these provisions, except in highly politicized cases.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were reports of political prisoners and detainees, although verifiable estimates of their total number were not available. While the government claimed there were no political prisoners, human rights groups and international observers maintained the government detained or imprisoned persons solely or chiefly because of their political beliefs. The UN Mission in Brazzaville, based on information gathered from local NGOs, reported 40 persons in detention for political reasons. Additional reports claimed authorities released 12 detainees. The government did not publicize the release of any prisoners.

Former presidential candidate Andre Okombi Salissa remained in prison as of October. In August the government transferred Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, a former presidential candidate, into the central military hospital for medical treatment, where he remained in detention. Mokoko and Okombi Salissa were serving sentences of 20 years with hard labor.

The government detained Parfait Mabiala, a supporter of the opposition movement Incarner l’espoir (Embody Hope) in November 2019 in Pointe-Noire. The government subsequently detained three other opposition members in Brazzaville in December 2019, Franck Donald Saboukoulou Loubaki, Guil Miangue Ossebi, and Meldry Rold Dissavoulou. Also in December 2019 authorities arrested Celeste Nlemvo Makela, an activist with the citizen movement Ras-le-Bol (Had Enough).

The government permitted limited access to those considered political prisoners by international human rights and humanitarian organizations and diplomatic missions.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals may file lawsuits in court on civil matters related to human rights, including seeking damages for or cessation of a human rights abuse. The public, however, generally lacked confidence in the judicial system’s ability to address human rights problems.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution and law prohibit such actions; the government, however, did not always respect these prohibitions.

There were reports government authorities entered homes without judicial or other appropriate authorization, monitored private movements, and employed informer systems.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials. The government did not apply the anticorruption law evenly, however, and many officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: Local and international organizations regularly accused government officials, including the president, his family, and senior ministers of corruption. The accusations generally alleged officials diverted revenues from their official portfolios into private, overseas accounts before officially declaring the remaining revenues.

In July the government removed from office the then mayor of Brazzaville, Christian Roger Okemba, and subsequently sentenced him to five years in prison for embezzling two million dollars of public funds. The court also sentenced Okemba’s wife, Anastasie Eleonore Okemba, to a three-year suspended sentence.

In June international media reported seizure of an overseas apartment owned by the president’s son and member of parliament, Denis-Christel Sassou N’guesso, as part of an investigation into the alleged misuse of state funds during his tenure as chief executive officer of the country’s parastatal oil company from 2010 to 2015.

Financial Disclosure: The constitution mandates elected and senior appointed officials disclose their financial interests before taking office and upon leaving office. Failure to do so constitutes legal grounds for dismissal from a senior position. The constitution does not require that financial disclosure statements be made public.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups occasionally faced government restrictions during their investigations and when publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were not cooperative with or responsive to international or domestic human rights groups. Some domestic human rights groups did not report on specific incidents due to fear of reprisal by the government.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government-sponsored Human Rights Commission (HRC) is the government human rights watchdog and is responsible for addressing public concerns regarding human rights problems. The HRC had little effectiveness or independence; it did not undertake any activities directly responding to human rights problems.

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