Police in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), have been accused of executing 51 people and causing the disappearances of at least 33 more during anti-gang raids carried out between November 2013 and February 2014.
Operation Likofi [the word for "punch" or 'iron fist' in Lingala, a local Bantu language] was intended to tackle gang crime in Kinshasa, butwas marked by police brutality and abuses.
During the three month-long operation, the Congolese police carried out violent raids across the city to track down members of local criminal gangs known as kulana. The kuluna had reportedly been responsible for an upsurge in armed robberies, rapes, and assaults across the capital. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the gangs were also "used by political leaders to silence or threaten their opponents."
In its report, HRW said that the operation, which was initially welcomed by the residents of Kinshasa, quickly turned into "a brutal campaign."
HRW based its report on 107 witness testimonies, collected from residents and members of the police force. The statements describe police carrying out summary executions against unarmed men, sometimes in front of their families or crowds. Five of the men killed were reportedly aged between 14 and 17 years old.
HRW claims that: "In all the cases investigated… those who were killed posed no imminent risk to life that would have justified the police's use of lethal force."
One of the officers who took part in Operation Likofi described the police's modus operandi in his testimony, saying: "When we arrived at the indicated locations, we took the youth, arrested them, and, if they were stubborn, we killed them on the spot."
"It was a 'commando' operation, and if you refused to execute the orders, then you too were considered a kuluna and killed," he said.
Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at HRW who helped co-author the report shed some light on the police's hardline tactics. She told VICE News that, "the police wanted to show the population that it had the upper hand."
"They arrested young men inside their homes, tied them up and dragged them outside, beat them, and shot them in front of crowds. If there was no audience, they left the bodies out in the street. They wanted to send a signal, to show others how they dealt with the kaluna."
According to HRW, the number of victims is likely to exceed the 51 documented cases.
"When the accusations first came out, [the police] changed tactics," said Van Woudenberg. "They started taking people to police camps, and that's when the disappearances began." She believes the men were executed while in custody, and their bodies disposed of in the Congo River.
HRW has asked Congolese authorities to suspend General Célestin Kanyama, the main commander of the operation, pending a judicial probe into his role in the campaign. It is not the first time that reports have surfaced detailing police brutality over the course of Operation Likofi. In October, the UN accused Congolese police of killing nine people and causing another 32 to disappear. Angered by the charges, the Congolese government immediately expelled the head of the Kinshasa UN human rights office in DRC, Scott Campbell.
The Congolese government has reacted strongly to these latest allegations, calling the report "an unacceptable interference." Speaking to French radio station RFI, government spokesperson Lambert Mende Omalanga said: "It is for us to decide who is guilty and who is innocent."
According to Omalanga, there is currently no proof that Kanyama is directly implicated in the alleged executions.
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