KINSHASA (Reuters) - Police arrested 18 protesters on Tuesday in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo city of Goma during a peaceful demonstration over the jailing of two fellow activists, the United Nations said.
Arrests of critics of President Joseph Kabila have become common in Congo amid heightened political tensions. Kabila is required by the constitution to step down in December after 15 years in office but the opposition accuses him of trying to cling to power by delaying a presidential poll set for November.
The activists were detained just after they began marching to demand the release of fellow members of the Struggle for Change (Lucha) group a year ago in the capital, Kinshasa, Jose Maria Aranaz, director of Congo’s U.N. human rights office, said.
Aranaz told Reuters that the detainees had been allowed to speak to a lawyer but that U.N. officials were denied access.
Lucha said on its Twitter feed that 19 of its members had been arrested and were being held at the police intelligence headquarters.
The provincial police commissioner declined to comment.
Ida Sawyer, senior Africa researcher for the campaign group Human Rights Watch, said by phone from Goma that the protest by about 20 activists was entirely peaceful.
“The police came and (the protesters) sat down,” she said. “The police then put them in the truck.”
The United Nations and rights groups have accused the government of targeting Kabila’s opponents, making spurious arrests and manipulating the justice system, charges that the government denies.
Dozens died in violent anti-government protests in January 2015 over a proposed law that critics said was a pretext to delay the election. Kabila has refused to comment on his political future.
Authorities arrested about 30 people, including an American diplomat and foreign journalists, last March at a news conference by Congolese and West African activists to promote youth participation in politics.
All but two have been released or deported. Fred Bauma, a Lucha member, and Yves Makwambala, a web developer working with the Kinshasa-based group Filimbi, remain in custody, charged with plotting against Kabila.
However, a parliamentary investigation last June found that there was no evidence to support the government’s accusations.
Six other Lucha members were sentenced on appeal this month to six months in prison for incitement to revolt after preparing banners that called on Kabila to step down at the end of 2016.
Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Louise Ireland