Published June 12, 2010
DAKAR, Senegal – DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — When police hauled Floribert Chebeya Bahizire in for questioning in March, they made him get down on the floor and held a gun to his head during the interview. He knew he was being followed by security agents and was often harassed.
It wasn't surprising then that the national police chief, Gen. John Numbi, asked to meet with the Congolese rights activist earlier this month.
But hours after his family got a text message saying he'd left the station and was coming home, passers-by discovered his body in his car on the outskirts of Kinshasa in the early morning hours of June 2. He appeared to have been strangled, according to the organization he ran, Voix des Sans Voix, or Voice of the Voiceless.
Even in Congo, where activists and journalists are routinely intimidated, the violent death of one of the country's most prominent human rights defenders was shocking. What happened next was more predictable: Officials announced the car was littered with condoms. Human Rights Watch said the salacious announcement was made before the investigation even began.
But they apparently did not count on the strength of the international outcry and have since made more positive gestures by suspending Numbi and arresting his intelligence director.
International rights groups say they are still waiting for a truly independent investigation. President Joseph Kabila's government has waffled on how much outside help it will accept. Dutch experts were allowed to participate in Friday's autopsy, but an offer from the U.S. to send FBI investigators was rejected.
Observers say Bahizire's death and the mixed signals the government has sent since are a reflection of the regime's scramble to assert control ahead of elections next year and could signal a coming crackdown.
Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch said clampdowns in Congo "come in waves." She noted that after the last elections in 2006 — the first in more than four decades — repression of opposition figures was particularly intense but had tailed off in the past few years. Now, there are signs of a hardening of the government's position.
"I fear we're going to see oppression increasing on human rights activists, the opposition and journalists ahead of the election," said Van Woudenberg, who is the New York-based rights group's senior researcher on Congo.
Human rights campaigners and journalists are regularly threatened as they work to uncover corruption and abuses and arrested without warrants when they publish. Bahizire, himself, was questioned at gunpoint in March, according to Amnesty International.
At least five journalists have been killed in Congo since 2007, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Radio France International was banned from the country last year, and a spokesman for the organization said negotiations to get back on the air are proving difficult. New accreditation rules threaten to haul international journalists before military tribunals if they report anything "injurious" about the armed forces without naming the officers involved.
Several rights groups have said Bahizire's death was part of this official strategy to silence opposition voices. But Guillaume Lacaille of the International Crisis Group said it was more likely result of chaos amid a struggle for power in a flailing regime. The government is scrambling to assert control over the country and project an image improving security before the elections.
It's a tough sell: The economy is in tatters and while the U.N. has agreed to begin withdrawing some peacekeepers by the end of the month, civilians are routinely killed and chased from their homes in the country's east and a new rebel group in the northwest has emerged.
In that climate, anyone seeking to convey an accurate portrait of Congo the outside world jeopardizes the government's efforts to whitewash its performance, said Lacaille, who is a senior Congo analyst for the Brussels-based think tank.
"I think it's a sign that there is more and more tension because what is at stake is the narrative that the regime intends to display at the beginning of an election year. It wants to show signs of improvement while the population on the ground barely sees any," he said.
But the killing itself was a public relations "disaster," he said, and unlikely to have been ordered by the highest levels of government, especially so close to the 50th anniversary of independence on June 30.
"By killing someone as famous and respected as Bahizire, the person crossed the red line," said Lacaille.
Jennifer Cooke, who directs the Africa program at the Washington-based for Strategic and International Studies, said that because the human rights situation has been "fairly appalling for a very long time," it's hard to tell if it has started to further deteriorate.
Still, the government is "clearly bent on maintaining its grip on power, and you're likely to see more of these events in the run-up to the elections," she said.
Associated Press writers Patrice Citera in Kinshasa, Congo, and Christina Okello in Paris contributed to this report.