Security forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo killed at least 62 people and arrested hundreds of others during protests across the country between December 19 and 22, 2016, after President Joseph Kabila refused to step down at the end of his constitutionally mandated two-term limit.

As people took to the streets – blowing whistles, banging on pots and pans, and shouting that Kabila’s time in office was up – government security forces fired live ammunition and teargas at the protesters.

Some witnesses heard soldiers yell at them: “We are here to exterminate you all!” Activists and opposition leaders were thrown in jail in the days leading up to and during the protests, while security forces wounded, threatened, detained, or denied access to international and Congolese journalists covering the protests. In the aftermath of the demonstrations, authorities denied relatives access to hospitals and morgues, making it impossible for many families to bury their loved ones.

In the lead-up to the December protests, and as domestic and international pressure on Kabila escalated, senior Congolese security force officers had mobilized at least 200 and likely many more former M23 rebel fighters from neighboring Uganda and Rwanda to protect Kabila and help quash the anti-Kabila protests.

The M23 combatants were recruited between October and early December 2016 from military and refugee camps in Uganda and Rwanda—where many M23 fighters have been based since the armed group’s defeat in eastern Congo in November 2013.

Once in Congo, the M23 fighters were deployed to the capital, Kinshasa, and the eastern and southern cities of Goma and Lubumbashi. They were given new uniforms and weapons and integrated into the police, army, and units of the Republican Guard, the presidential security detail.

Congolese security force officers—including many from previous Rwandan-backed rebellions who had since integrated into the Congolese army—looked after them, paying them well and providing them with food and accommodation. To protect the president and quash protests, the M23 fighters were given explicit orders to use lethal force, including at “point-blank range” if necessary.

“Many M23 were deployed to wage a war against those who wanted to threaten Kabila’s hold on power,” one M23 fighter told Human Rights Watch. “We received orders to shoot immediately at the slightest provocation by civilians,” another  said.

Many of the recruited M23 fighters were sent back to Uganda and Rwanda in late December and early January 2017. Congolese security forces again covertly recruited M23 fighters from Rwanda and Uganda between May and July 2017. They were sent to Kisangani in northeastern Congo where they were awaiting training, allegedly to prepare them for future “special operations” to respond to any threats to Kabila’s hold on power.

This report documents the repression of peaceful protesters, activists, journalists, and political opposition leaders and supporters in Congo in December 2016 and the covert recruitment of members of an abusive armed group, the M23, to help carry out this repression. With more protests planned in the coming weeks – nearly one year past the end of Kabila’s constitutional mandate – the findings in this report raise concerns about further violence and repression.

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Armed Groups in Eastern Congo

Several dozen armed groups are currently active in eastern Congo. Here we only discuss current and former armed groups that are mentioned in this report. Ndlr: Many with link to Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda

Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement congolais pour la démocratie, RCD): a former Congolese rebel group backed by Rwanda, active during the “second Congo war” from 1998 to 2003. This was led by Azzarias Ruberwa, former Vice President and vice Minister in the new Government of Kabila, in charge of Decentralisation and Institutional reforms.

National Congress for the Defense of the People (Congrès national pour la défense du peuple, CNDP): Rwandan-backed Congolese rebel group established in 2006 ostensibly to defend, protect, and ensure political representation for the several hundred thousand Congolese Tutsi living in eastern Congo and several tens of thousands of Congolese refugees, most of them Tutsi, living in Rwanda. The group’s fighters were responsible for widespread war crimes. Many CNDP fighters had been part of the RCD. In early 2009, following a secret deal between Congo and Rwanda, CNDP fighters were integrated into the Congolese army and immediately participated in joint military operations with the Rwandan and Congolese armies against the FDLR.

General Laurent Nkunda, who was commander to CNDP was put  under house arrest in Gisenyi /Rwanda, when he was called for a meeting to plan a joint operation between the Congolese and Rwandan militaries.

March 23 Movement (Mouvement du 23 mars, M23): a rebellion led by mostly Tutsi officers who had been part of the CDNP , before integrating into the army in early 2009, then defecting in early 2012. The name comes from the March 23, 2009 agreement between the CNDP and the Congolese government, which the M23’s leaders said had not been respected by the government. HRW report says the M23 relied on significant support from Rwandan military officials who planned and commanded operations, trained new recruits, and provided weapons, ammunition, and other supplies. Hundreds of young men and boys were recruited in Rwanda and forced to cross the border into Congo and fight with the M23, but the group was defeated between April 2012 and November 2013. General Bosco Ntaganda from the group is under trial in ICC.

Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR): a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group based in eastern Congo. Some of its members participated in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. Since then, Rwandan Hutu militias based in eastern Congo have reorganized politically and militarily, going through various name and leadership changes. The rebel group’s current configuration, the FDLR, was established in 2000. Its forces have been involved in numerous serious abuses against Congolese civilians. Since 2012, the group’s military commander, Sylvestre Mudacumura, has been sought on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for nine counts of war crimes allegedly committed in eastern Congo in 2009 and 2010. He remains at large.

Nyatura: with the start of the M23 rebellion in early 2012, Congolese Hutu armed groups spread throughout Masisi territory and parts of Rutshuru, Walikale, and Kalehe territories in eastern Congo’s North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. New groups were formed and older groups re-established themselves. While many of these groups have their own individual names, or are named after their commanders, they are often referred to collectively as the Nyatura, which means “hit hard” in Kinyarwanda, a language spoken in Rwanda and by some in eastern Congo and southern Uganda. Nyatura fighters, often operating together with the FDLR, have been responsible for widespread abuses, including summary executions, rapes, and recruitment of children, including by force. Since the M23’s defeat in late 2013, some Nyatura groups have allied with former M23 fighters.

Military, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence Agencies

Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo, FARDC): created in 2003, estimated to have between 133,000 and 145,000 personnel. The force has a long record of serious human rights violations. Those responsible for abuses are rarely held to account.

Furthermore, the government has a longstanding practice of integrating former fighters from abusive armed groups into the army without formal training or vetting to exclude those implicated in past abuses. President Joseph Kabila, who holds the rank of major general, serves as commander-in-chief of the army. Gen. Didier Etumba has been the army’s chief of staff since 2008.

National Intelligence Agency (Agence nationale de renseignements, ANR): under the control of the president, the agency is mandated to investigate crimes against the state, such as treason and conspiracy. Local and international human rights monitors and Congolese lawyers have limited access to ANR detention centers across the country and in some places, like Kinshasa, have no access at all. Kalev Mutondo has been the director of the ANR since 2011.

National Police Force (Police nationale congolaise, PNC): created in 2002, Congo’s national police force is estimated to have some 100,000 police officers. Gen. Charles Bisengimana was the acting and later official national police commissioner from 2010 until July 17, 2017, when he was replaced by Lt. Gen. Dieudonné Amuli Bahigwa.

Republican Guard (Garde républicaine): the elite presidential security detail made up of some 18,000 soldiers, including many from the former Katanga province (home province of Joseph Kabila’s father). The Republican Guard is mandated to protect the president, presidential premises, and “distinguished guests.” Ilunga Kampete has been the commander of the Republican Guard since 2014.

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Recommendations

To President Kabila

Publicly order state security forces to end unlawful and excessive use of force and other forms of repression against protesters, activists, and the political opposition;

Ensure an immediate end to all recruitment and deployment of M23 fighters by the Congolese security forces; and

Respect the constitution by stepping down from the presidency by the end of December 2017.

To the Government of Congo

Take all necessary measures to stop the unlawful and excessive use of force by the security forces and other forms of repression against protesters and the political opposition;

Investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for serious human rights violations, regardless of position or rank;

Ensure that Congolese and international human rights defenders and journalists are able to work in Congo without interference;

Support efforts to bring to justice M23 commanders implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious abuses, in accordance with the Nairobi Declarations, signed in December 2013;

Support the implementation of a credible Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program for M23 combatants who are not wanted for serious international crimes

To the Governments of Rwanda and Uganda

Cease any support by Ugandan and Rwandan officials to the recruitment and mobilization of M23 fighters in Uganda and Rwanda by the Congolese security forces;

Investigate and prosecute as appropriate Rwandan or Ugandan civilian and military officials for unlawfully assisting the recruitment of M23 fighters;

Cooperate with efforts to bring to justice M23 commanders implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious abuses, and ensure that any such commanders who have fled to Rwanda or Uganda are not shielded from justice, as called for in the Framework Agreement.

To the African Union, Southern African Development Community, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, and other regional leaders

Publicly and privately denounce the unlawful and excessive use of force during protests in Congo, and the recruitment of M23 fighters to participate in suppressing these protests;

In accordance with the Framework Agreement, seek to ensure that any arrangement between the Congolese government and the M23 excludes integration into the Congolese army of M23 leaders implicated in war crimes and other serious abuses, including those on UN and US sanctions lists;

Press for the arrest and prosecution of military commanders, including members of the M23, implicated in war crimes and other serious abuses;

Support a peaceful transfer of power by urging President Kabila to step down from the presidency and helping to ensure that concerns about Kabila’s physical security after he leaves office are addressed.

To the UN Secretary-General and Security Council and International Donors, including the EU, US, China, and International Organisation of La Francophonie

Publicly and privately denounce the unlawful and excessive use of force during protests in Congo, and the recruitment of M23 fighters to participate in suppressing these protests;

Seek to ensure that any arrangement between the Congolese government and the M23 excludes integration into the Congolese army of M23 leaders implicated in war crimes and other serious abuses, including those on UN and US sanctions lists;

Press for the arrest and prosecution of military commanders, including members of the M23, implicated in war crimes and other serious abuses;

Support the implementation of a credible Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program for M23 combatants who are not wanted for serious international crimes, including long-term follow-up and support programs after they reintegrate into civilian life;

Impose new targeted sanctions, including travel bans and assets freezes, against those most responsible for serious human rights violations in Congo. These should include senior government, intelligence, and security force officials implicated in the recruitment, support and funding of M23 fighters;

If the government does not implement such measures before the end of 2017, impose sanctions on Kabila himself and work with regional leaders to press Kabila to step down from power;

If Kabila does leave office before elections are organized, actively monitor and support efforts to establish a transitional authority;

Continue support to the UN peacekeeping mission,

To the MONUSCO

Publicly and privately denounce the unlawful and excessive use of force during protests in Congo, and the recruitment of M23 fighters to participate in suppressing these protests, as well as other political repression and serious human rights abuses;

Support the implementation of a credible Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program for M23 combatants who are not wanted for serious international crimes

To the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court

Monitor the situation in Congo closely and undertake a visit to the country at an opportune time;

Publicly denounce violence and repression in the country, and consider investigating recent serious crimes for possible prosecution.

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