A Catholic Church leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has condemned the state’s response to protests over the weekend as “barbarism”, after a dozen people were killed in the violence, according to recent estimates from protest organisers.
Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo, the archibishop of Kinshasa, said the deadly crackdown on protesters who marched in the capital and other cities on Sunday has “created a sociopolitical malaise that cuts across our dear and beautiful country.
“We can only denounce, condemn and stigmatise the actions of our so-called valiant men in uniform who unfortunately are carrying out – no more, no less – barbarism,” Monsengwo said in a statement.
The death toll of mass anti-government rallies has risen to 12, Jonas Tshombela, a spokesman for the protest organisers, told AFP news agency.
Eleven people were killed in Kinshasa and one was killed in the city of Kananga, Tshombela said.
The protests were called for by a Catholic Church committee in the Congo, and supported by opposition groups, civil society organisations, and other activists.
In his letter, Monsengwo said “it is no longer a secret to anyone that the general climate in the country, and in the capital in particular, is characterised by renewed fear and anxiety, uncertainty and even panic.”
Scores of people were injured and more than 120 were arrested at the rallies after state police and military forces shot tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition at the protesters.
Monsengwo said security forces prevented worshippers from reaching churches for Sunday mass and fired tear gas in different parishes across Kinshasa.
He said soldiers entered churches “under the pretext of searching for troublemakers”.
Security forces also fired live ammunition on “Christians holding bibles, rosaries and crucifixes in their hands” and arrested priests and worshippers, Monsengwo said.
Laurent Mende, a government spokesperson, said Monsengwo‘s statement was a “political declaration” that lacked in facts.
Mende accused Monsengwo of “inciting … the Congolese people to hatred and confrontation”.
He said Congo security forces respected international law in dealing with events on December 31.
The government puts Sunday’s death toll at five people, Mende told reporters on Wednesday afternoon.
Mende also accused “agitators” of seeking to destabilise the country.
Protesters were calling on Joseph Kabila, the country’s president, to step down and respect a 2016 political agreement in which he had pledged to allow for new elections before the end of the year.
Kabila now plans to remain in power until December 2018 to allow for voter registration to be completed.
Monsengwo accused Kabila of “voluntarily violating” the agreement, known as the Saint Sylvestre Accord.
A spokesperson for the European Union Foreign Affairs and Security Policy called on the Congo government to free arrested protesters, including some religious leaders, who were arrested at the demonstrations.
“The Congolese authorities have a responsbility to protect their citizens, not repress them,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Ghislain Muhiwa, a member of a coalition of civil society groups and human rights orgnaisations known as the Civil Society Action Collective (CASC), said the state has violated the Congolese peoples’ right to freedom of expression and freedom of protest.
“For us, that’s not acceptable,” Muhiwa told Al Jazeera. “We have to say that the government has completely lost the confidence of the Congolese people.”
The state has alleged that criminals infiltrated the protests with weapons. It says an investigation into the allegations of human rights violations is ongoing.
“We deeply regret that there has been loss of life, including a police officer,” Mende said earlier this week.
Calls for ‘new leadership’
But Muhiwa raised doubt over whether a government investigation will get to the truth of what happened.
“We cannot give credibility to a government” that has lied repeatedly when accused of human rights violations in the past, Muhiwa said.
He said more protests opposing Kabila’s rule are being planned, but did not provide an exact date for future actions.
In the meantime, people want Kabila to make his plan for forthcoming elections clear, and present guarantees that he will not put forward his candidacy, Muhiwa said.
Under the current constitution, a Congo president can only serve two, consecutive, five-year terms. Kabila’s presidential mandate ended in December 2016.
“His place is no longer in the presidency,” Muhiwa said. “He doesn’t deserve to lead the Congo. We need new leadership.”