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Republic of the Congo

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.

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.

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.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression in all forms of communication and prohibits censorship, including for the press, but the government did not always respect these rights.

Freedom of Speech: Individuals could criticize the government publicly or privately but feared reprisal. The constitution criminalizes speech that incites ethnic hatred, violence, or civil war and makes it punishable by no less than five years in prison. It also criminalizes any act or event that promotes racism or xenophobia.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views with some restrictions. Press and media outlets regularly published criticism and satire of the government and senior officials. Most citizens obtained their news from local retransmission of international media and local radio or television stations. There was greater space in electronic media for open and critical discussion of government policy. International radio broadcasts and satellite television services were available and encouraged discussions of public policy.

Violence and Harassment: There were unconfirmed reports of direct and indirect intimidation of journalists by the government, including telephone calls from official and anonymous persons warning journalists and news outlets not to use footage of politically sensitive events or run certain stories.

Private media reported that government spokesperson and journalist Rocil Otuna lost his broadcast reporting responsibilities after interviewing the minister of justice on the government-owned television station Telecongo in May and suggesting the then popular belief that the coronavirus was a hoax. Private media and the government’s media watchdog criticized Otuna’s removal from the airwaves.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media outlets were required to register with the Superior Council for Liberty of Communication (CSLC), an official regulatory body. Media outlets that violated council regulations were subject to financial sanctions or temporary shutdown. The president appoints the director of the council.

Many journalists and editors at larger circulation media outlets practiced self-censorship and promoted the editorial views of media owners. Newspapers published open letters written by government opponents.

There were no reports the government revoked journalists’ accreditations if their reporting reflected adversely on the government’s image.

In July the CSLC suspended the weekly newspaper Manager Horizon for defamation for three months. The CSLC found the Manager Horizon’s editor unable to justify claims in its June 2 edition that two ministers and a government official had criticized the prime minister’s decision to practice social distancing. As of December the newspaper had resumed operation.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law provides for monetary penalties and suspension of a publication’s permission to print for defamation and incitement to violence. Authorities sometimes brought charges under these laws.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly. The government generally respected this right.

The government required authorization from the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization and appropriate local officials for assemblies and demonstrations.

Freedom of Association

The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government sometimes respected this right. Political, social, or economic groups or associations were required to register with the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization. Authorities sometimes rejected registration requests due to political influence. According to a local NGO, groups that spoke openly against the government encountered overt or veiled threats and found the registration process more time consuming than organizations less critical of the government.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights.

Foreign Travel: The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.

By law all citizens are eligible for a national passport. The government, however, lacked the capacity to produce passports in sufficient numbers to meet demand and prioritized providing passports to those individuals who could demonstrate imminent need to travel or who had strong government connections. Obtaining a passport was a time consuming and difficult process for most persons.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution and law provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: During the 2017 legislative and local elections, international observers conducted two rounds of electoral observation. Most observers reported polling stations and electoral officials conducted their business professionally and had the tools necessary to conduct two parallel and concurrent elections for legislative and local races. Civil society and political party representation inside polling stations was robust and critical in dispute resolution. Observers, however, reported the heavy presence of security forces both inside and outside polling stations.

International electoral observers reported instances of fraud that likely benefitted candidates of the ruling Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and its allies in both rounds. During the first round of voting in 2017, international observers witnessed ballot box stuffing after the close of voting and before vote counts at the Foyer Social voting station in the Poto-Poto neighborhood of Brazzaville. During the second round of voting in 2017, international observers witnessed busloads of soldiers at the CEG De La Paix voting station in the Moungali neighborhood of Brazzaville. Local residents claimed these soldiers lacked appropriate documentation for that voting station, thus compromising the election results.

Some opposition parties boycotted the vote. The 2017 legislative elections gave the PCT and its allies control of 102 of 151 seats.

The Constitutional Court declared incumbent president Denis Sassou N’Guesso the winner of the 2016 presidential election in the first round with 60.29 percent of the vote. The court cited a 68.92 percent voter turnout among the more than two million eligible voters, with a 100 percent voter turnout in at least three regions.

On presidential election day, international observers witnessed a number of irregularities including: incorrect voter lists; inconsistency in ballot boxes; prefilled voting tally sheets for voter stations in Brazzaville; polling officials allowing and encouraging underage and multiple voting and instructing voters to vote only for the incumbent; polling stations opening late and without adequate supplies; polling officials refusing entry to accredited international observers; persons paying voters to vote for certain candidates; lack of uniform enforcement of voter identification requirements; polling officials, at separate locations, loyal to either the incumbent president or opposition candidates blocking entry to voters supporting opposing candidates; ruling party loyalists impersonating representatives of other candidates; polling officials not posting final vote tally sheets on the exterior wall of polling stations as required and burning ballots after the polling station count; and officials prohibiting observation at regional and national vote compilation centers.

Political Parties and Political Participation: Political parties and civil society groups faced restrictions on their ability to participate in the political and electoral process. The law confers recognition on 55 of 200 existing parties. According to the government, the remaining political parties did not meet the nationwide representation requirements.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit women’s or minority groups’ political participation as voters or candidates. Observers suggested cultural constraints might limit the number of women in government. Sexual harassment discouraged women’s participation in political activities. There were 14 women in the 72-seat senate and 15 women in the 151-seat national assembly. There were seven women in the 35-member cabinet. The law required that women make up 30 percent of each party’s slate of candidates for local or legislative elections. The constitution grants parity for women in political positions and mandated the creation of a national advisory council for women, but it did not specify whether the promotion of parity related to pay, benefits, appointment to political positions, or other topics.

The political process excluded many indigenous persons. Reasons included their isolation in remote areas, lack of registration, cultural barriers, and stigmatization by the majority Bantu population (see section 6).

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 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups

The law prohibits discrimination based on ethnicity, but the government made little effort to enforce it.

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