June 2, 2017 / 5:18 PM / in 5 months

Congo opposition leader hopes for protection if he returns home

FILE PHOTO: Democratic Republic of Congo's opposition Presidential candidate Moise Katumbi talks to his supporters after leaving the prosecutor's office in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga province of the Democratic Republic of Congo, May 11, 2016. REUTERS/Kenny Katombe/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) - Congolese opposition leader Moise Katumbi filed a legal complaint with the U.N. Human Rights Committee on Friday, in hope of getting international protection if he returns to run in a future presidential election.

“The reason I’ve come to make this complaint is to alert the international community, because President (Joseph) Kabila is going to organize elections without Moise Katumbi,” he told Reuters.

“Despite the risk I have to go back because I‘m a candidate and I will remain one. If the (election) timetable begins I have to back.”

The multi-millionaire businessman has been abroad since he was accused of plotting against the state a year ago, and has repeatedly vowed to return to Congo. Last year he was convicted of real estate fraud and sentenced to three years in prison in absentia. He dismissed the verdict as politically motivated.

Any return would heighten political tensions in Democratic Republic of Congo where opposition groups say Kabila is trying to cling to power by cracking down on dissent and delaying the vote.

The government has repeatedly dismissed his allegations that his safety is at risk in Congo and has called on him to return to the country to answer for the charges against him.

A government spokesman was not immediately available to comment on Friday.

Kabila, in power since 2001, refused to step down after his mandate expired in December. Under a deal struck with his opponents, an election must take place by the end of 2017 but the process remains stalled due to delays registering voters.

Congo has never experienced a peaceful transition of power. The overthrow of longtime ruler Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 fueled years of conflict in the mineral-rich east that sucked in more than half a dozen countries and killed millions of people.

Speaking after lodging the 36-page petition at the United Nations in Geneva, Katumbi told reporters that he stood for peace and the rule of law, and he wanted to end impunity in his country and see an international tribunal mete out justice.

“For Kabila, he needs to keep Moise Katumbi out of the country to organize elections. Because he knows very well, if we go into an election, I am sure and certain that I am going to win the election to bring change to my country,” Katumbi said.

According to a rare national poll published last month by the Congo Research Group at New York University, 38 percent of Congolese would vote for Katumbi if the presidential election were held now, more than any other potential candidate.

His lawyer, Eric Dupond-Moretti, said it was impossible to say how long the U.N. process would last, but Congo’s government was likely to take as long as possible to answer any questions arising from the legal complaint, which spells out allegations about violations of Katumbi’s rights.

“However, there are some provisional measures. During this process of questions and answers, at some point the committee can ask the state to protect him. From the moment we have that recommendation from the committee, we can already involve the African Union, the United Nations, to get protection,” he said.

“Because we know with certainty that if Moise Katumbi returns to his country without protection he is going to his death.”

Reporting by Tom Miles, additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Kinshasa; Editing by Stephen Powell

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