Republic of the Congo
The Republic of the Congo (ROC) is a presidential republic in which the constitution, promulgated in 2015, vests most decision-making authority and political power in the president and prime minister. In 2015 the Republic of the Congo adopted a new constitution, that extended previous maximum presidential term limits to three terms of five years, and provided complete immunity to former presidents. In April 2016 the Constitutional Court proclaimed the incumbent, Denis Sassou N’Guesso, winner of the March 2016 presidential election despite complaints of electoral irregularities. The government held the most recent legislative and local elections in July 2017. While the country has a multiparty political system, members of the president’s Congolese Labor Party (PCT) and its allies retained almost 90 percent of legislative seats, and PCT members occupied almost all senior government positions.
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.
During the year the country experienced significant positive changes regarding internal peace and security. In December 2017 the government and representatives of the Nsiloulou faction of the Ninja rebel militia group agreed to a ceasefire, thereby ending the conflict in the Pool region that had been ongoing since 2016. In June government and UN sources stated approximately 80-90 percent of the 161,000 persons displaced by the conflict had returned to their homes and villages.
Human rights issues included reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings; forced disappearance; arbitrary detention by the government; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; infringement of citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on freedoms of assembly and association; restrictions on the ability of citizens to change their government peacefully; corruption on the part of officials; violence against women, including rape, domestic violence, and child abuse; trafficking in persons; and child labor, including worst forms.
The government seldom took steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses, and official impunity was a problem.
According to the United Nations, the security situation in the Pool region improved significantly. In contrast with 2017, reports of human rights abuses against civilians in the conflict zone committed either by government-controlled or rebel forces declined significantly as the security situation improved. The government did not take steps to investigate, prosecute, or punish perpetrators of human rights abuses committed during the Pool conflict by government-controlled or rebel forces in 2016 and 2017. In August the government, rebel leaders, and the United Nations Development Program announced a joint program to conduct disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) activities in the Pool region.
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 several reports on social media of the government or its agents committing arbitrary or unlawful killings; however, for most such reports of killings besides those specified below, no independent confirmation was possible, leading to uncertainty regarding the frequency of the incidents and the total number of persons arbitrarily deprived of life.
Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report deaths resulting from abuse in prisons and pretrial detention centers (see sections 1.c. and 1.g.).
On July 23, 13 persons between the ages of 12 and 22 died in police custody in the Chacona police station in Brazzaville. Significant public backlash contributed to a shifting government narrative of the incident. The government’s public prosecutor originally announced that the deaths resulted from armed street violence between rival gangs. On July 26, however, the minister of interior admitted before Parliament that the young men died in unclear circumstances in police custody. In the days following the incident, the government announced it would launch an investigation into the incident, detained members of the police unit that worked at the Chacona police station, and paid families 2,000,000 Central African Francs each ($3,530). As of December 10, a judicial review was underway but not yet complete.
There were no new reports of politically motivated disappearances. There was no new information on the February 2017 disappearances of Nimi Ngoma Guedj, Akonga Hosny Normand, and Awambi Elmich, who were arrested and detained at the Poto-Poto 2 police jail facility.
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 under the criminal code. There were reports of cases of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
In January authorities released Dongui Christ, an activist, from custody. Authorities had accused Christ of spreading false information and disturbing the public order and subjected him to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment during his detention.
The United Nations reported that during the year it received two allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against peacekeepers from the Republic of the Congo deployed in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). One case alleged sexual assault (rape), the other allegation reported sexual exploitation (exploitative relationships involving 13 peacekeepers and 11 victims). Investigations by both the UN and the ROC government were pending. Four allegations were reported in 2017, of which two were pending (and one was unsubstantiated). Ten allegations dating back to 2015 were pending. In 2017 a UN review of the deployment of uniformed personnel from the ROC in MINUSCA found that the nature and extent of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse pointed to systemic problems in command and control, leading the Republic of the Congo to withdraw its military personnel deployed in MINUSCA.
In June the government convicted three ROC military personnel accused of committing war crimes in the Central African Republic (CAR). A court sentenced the three military personnel to three years in prison before releasing them for time served. The armed forces reportedly imposed nonjudicial punishments on personnel accused of sexual exploitation and abuse in the CAR.
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 1,016, including 33 women and 17 minors. The Pointe-Noire Prison, built in 1934 to hold 75 inmates, held an estimated 325 persons. Police stations regularly housed individuals in their limited incarceration facilities beyond the maximum statutory holding period of 72 hours. In addition to these official prisons, the government’s intelligence and security services operated several secret detention centers and security prisons, which 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, 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 than in those for men. Authorities held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. In Brazzaville, authorities housed 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. As in 2017, a local NGO reported that figures on the number and causes of death while in custody were unavailable.
In Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, most inmates slept on the floor on cardboard or thin mattresses 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 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 issues. Prisoners had weekly access to Christian religious services only. 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 built on the ground 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.
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 either in a crowded open area or in 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 different prisons on multiple occasions throughout the year.
Throughout the year, 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.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but local NGOs report 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.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
Security forces consist of police, the gendarmerie, and the military. Police and the gendarmerie are responsible for maintaining internal order, with police primarily operating in cities and the gendarmerie mainly in other areas. Military forces are responsible for territorial security, but some units also have domestic security responsibilities. For example, the specialized Republican Guard battalion provides protection for the president, government buildings, and diplomatic missions. The Ministry of Defense oversees the military and gendarmerie, and the Ministry of the Interior and Decentralization oversees the police.
A civilian police unit under the Ministry of Interior and Decentralization is responsible for patrolling the borders. Separately, a military police unit reports to the Ministry of Defense and is composed of military and police officers responsible for investigating professional misconduct by members of any of the security forces.
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces; however, there were members of the security forces who acted independently of civilian authority, committed abuses, and engaged in malfeasance. The law charges both the military police and the Office of the Inspector General of Police with investigating reports of misconduct by security forces. The civilian justice system is responsible for conducting trials of military force members accused of crimes.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The constitution and law require that a duly authorized official issue warrants before making arrests, a person be apprehended openly, a lawyer be present during initial questioning, and 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 filing of formal charges often took at least one week. There were reports that 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 due to the political nature of the case or administrative errors. 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 to indigent detainees facing criminal charges at government expense, but this usually did not occur.
The penal code 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 criminal code states that 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 that the judicial investigation is sufficiently advanced, that the accused does not pose a risk of subornation of witnesses, and does not pose a threat of disturbance to public order caused by the offense initially alleged; however, this law was not respected in practice.
Arbitrary Arrest: Reports suggest that arbitrary and false arrests continued to occur.
In November 2017 plain-clothes members of the security forces arrested Steve Bagne Batongo, a lawyer, in Brazzaville. Authorities arrested Bagne in his law office in violation of Article 53 of Congolese Law 026-92 on the Organization of Professional Lawyers. Authorities held Bagne in custody without charge longer than the 72 hours allowed under Article 48 of the penal code. In January authorities released Bagne from detention without trial.
Prostitution is legal. Under the law procuring (arranging the prostitution of another for financial gain) and sex trafficking are illegal. In November, the Brazzaville police arrested a Cameroonian national accused of procuring prostitution. In December, the Ministry of Women’s Promotion conducted job training for 20 former female prostitutes to encourage them to pursue other types of employment. There were unconfirmed reports that police arrested prostitutes, including gay men, for alleged illegal activity.
Pretrial Detention: The penal code sets a maximum of four months in pretrial detention. Under the law pretrial detention is extendable for two additional months with judicial approval. The penal code is not clear whether the two-month extension is renewable. Judges often renewed the two-month extension of pretrial detainees. Between 60 and 75 percent of detainees in the prisons were pretrial detainees. Prison authorities stated the average provisional detention for noncriminal cases lasted one to three months and for criminal cases at least 12 months. Human rights activists, however, stated the average was much longer, commonly exceeding a year, and sometimes exceeding the maximum sentence for the alleged crime.
For example, in November 2015 authorities arrested British citizen Paulin Makaya, president of the opposition United for Congo Party, for “incitement to public disorder” for organizing and participating in an unauthorized demonstration in October 2015 against the constitutional referendum. Makaya remained in pretrial detention for two years and eight months under the charge of disturbing public order. On March 18, authorities charged Makaya with inciting disorderly conduct. His trial took place in July, and the court sentenced Makaya to one year in jail and eligible for release based on time served as of September 15. The government released Makaya on September 17.
Lengthy pretrial detentions were due to the judicial system’s lack of capacity, and a lack of political will to address the issue. The penal code defines three levels of crime: misdemeanors (punishable by less than one year in prison), the 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. Due to a lack of funding, no felony cases took place from 2014 until March. Authorities held in pretrial detention those accused of felonies for the duration of this period. From March to May, criminal courts held felony sessions throughout the country. Brazzaville’s criminal court heard 132 felony cases.
Detainee’s 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 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.
The constitution and law are the framework for an independent judiciary. High caseload, lack of financial resources, political influence, and corruption remained problematic. 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, and domestic conflicts that could not be resolved within the family.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair trial presided over by an independent judiciary, but authorities did not always respect this right. In 2011, the Ministry of Justice began to decentralize the trial process. 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 and felony cases. Defendants in all criminal trials 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 law extends these rights to all citizens, and the government generally abided by these provisions, except in highly politicized cases.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
During the year, authorities released numerous prisoners and detainees. According to local NGOs, approximately 70 persons remained in detention for political reasons. On June 26, authorities released 81 supporters of the leader of the Ninja militia, Pasteur Ntumi to solidify the December 23 ceasefire agreement signed between the government and rebel forces.
In December 2017 authorities released an American citizen who served 20 months of prison time for political reasons.
Former presidential candidates Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko and Andre Okombi Salissa remained in jail as of November 14. On October 19, however, authorities released senior members of their staff including Jean Ngouabi, Jacques Banagandzala, Anatole Limbongo Ngoka, Christine Moyen, Dieudonne Dhird, and Raymond Ebonga.
The government permitted limited access to political prisoners by international human rights and humanitarian organizations and diplomatic missions.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The judiciary heard felony court cases from March to May for the first time since September 2014. Brazzaville’s felony court tried 132 pending cases.
Civil courts continued to review cases on a regular basis throughout the year. Civil courts experienced long delays, although shorter than felony courts. Individuals may file a lawsuit in court on civil matters related to human rights, including seeking damages for or cessation of a human rights violation. The public, however, generally lacked confidence in the judicial system’s ability to address human rights problems.
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.
In the Pool region, a conflict between the Ninja/Nsiloulou armed rebel group and government security forces ended with a ceasefire agreement in December 2017. To the end of the reporting year, neither party to the conflict has violated the ceasefire. Authorities vacated an arrest warrant for the leader of the rebel group, Frederick Bintsamou a.k.a. “Pastor Ntumi,” in August. As of September, the judicial system had not held perpetrators of abuses committed in the Pool conflict in 2016 and 2017 accountable for any crimes committed during the conflict.
Killings: There were no reports of military or armed groups killing civilians in conflict areas during the reporting period.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: According to the UN Development Program, humanitarian workers now have access to all areas of the Pool that were restricted during the 2016-17 conflict. The government ceased restricting the passage of humanitarian relief supplies, including food, drinking water, and medical aid provided by international humanitarian organizations such as the United Nations. In June a UN agency reported that members of the Ninja armed group detained aid workers for several hours before releasing them unharmed.
UN and government sources estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the 161,000 internally displaced persons from the Pool region conflict returned home as of September. The government designated a high commissioner for reinsertion of former combatants charged with implementing DDR activities, in coordination with the United Nations, in efforts to end the conflict and reduce the possibility for violence or other human rights abuses. The minister of interior chairs the Equal Representation Ad-hoc Commission (Commission Ad-hoc Mixte Paritaire, or CAMP) charged with coordinating between the former Ninja rebel group and the government.
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. Nevertheless, irregularities restricting this ability occurred during the most recent legislative elections, in 2017, and in previous elections.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: During the 2017 legislative and local elections, international observers conducted two rounds of electoral observation. Some opposition parties boycotted the vote. Most observers reported that 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 of polling stations was robust and critical in dispute resolution. Observers, however, reported the heavy presence of security forces both outside and inside polling stations.
The 2017 elections gave the PCT and its allies control of 102 of 151 or 68 percent of seats. According to government figures, turnout was 44.44 percent; international observers in Brazzaville, however, indicated participation was lower.
International electoral observers reported examples of fraud that likely benefitted candidates of the PCT and its allies in both rounds. For example, during the first round of voting on July 16, 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 on July 30, international observers witnessed busloads of soldiers at the CEG De La Paix voting station in the Moungali neighborhood of Brazzaville. Local residents inside and outside the voting station claimed that soldiers who lacked appropriate documentation had voted in the CEG De La Paix voting station, compromising the election results.
The Constitutional Court declared incumbent President Denis Sassou N’Guesso the winner of the March 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; 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; not posting final vote tally sheets on the exterior wall of polling stations as required; burning ballots after the polling station count; and 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. In June the Ministry of Interior published a law on the creation of political parties that confers recognition on 55 of 200 existing parties. According to the government, the remaining political parties did not meet requirements including nationwide representation.
In the previous electoral cycle, political groups experienced restrictions on their ability to participate in the political process including delays registering their organizations or candidates and accessing public campaign funds. Some political opposition supporters faced intimidation and security restrictions on attending their rallies or trying to vote, according to numerous eyewitness and media accounts. Attempts to impede criticism of the government through intimidation, arrests, and routine disruption of political meetings remained common. Authorities continued to detain opposition figures (see section 1.e., political prisoners and detainees).
Participation of Women and Minorities: 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 eight women in the 35-member cabinet appointed in August 2017.
In 2014 the president signed a law requiring that women make up 30 percent of each party’s slate of candidates for local or legislative elections. The 2015 constitution granted 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 issues.
The political process excludes 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). For example, a local government official reported that during the October 2015 referendum, the voting booth in Sibiti, a rural city with many indigenous persons, was open for only 30 minutes, from 7:30-8:00 a.m. Because indigenous communities in outer villages must travel several hours to reach Sibiti, no one reportedly voted.