DRC journalists remain in 'illegal' detention

June 20, 2008 12:00 PM ET

 
June 20, 2008

His Excellency Symphorien Mutombo Bakafua Nsenda
Minister of Justice and Human Rights of the Democratic Republic of Congo
c/o Embassy of the DRC to the United States
1800 New Hampshire Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20009

Via facsimile: (202) 234-2609

Dear Mr. Nsenda,

We are deeply alarmed by the ongoing imprisonment of newspaper editor Nsimba Ponte and his assistant Davin Tondo. A government prosecutor said this week that their months-long pre-trial detention was illegal, and yet the two have been denied bail and were not charged until June 6, according to local press freedom group Journaliste en Danger (JED). In addition, Ponte is in poor health.

Ponte and Tondo were detained for questioning at the Congolese National Intelligence Agency after plainclothes security agents picked them up, respectively on March 7 and on March 29, according to local journalists. The two were held incommunicado for several weeks by state security agents--without charge or access to a lawyer--in violation of their fundamental constitutional rights.

We are concerned about Ponte's health. He has been diagnosed with symptoms of meningitis and stomach ulcers and referred to specialized medical care, according to an official medical certificate issued by a prison doctor on June 9 and obtained by CPJ. Ponte, 57, reported headaches and fainting twice while in state custody, according to Ponte. Speaking to CPJ via telephone from prison this week, Ponte said he was being held in a cell with some 20 other inmates.

Ponte, managing editor of the biweekly L'interprète, and assistant Davin Tondo were formally charged on June 6 with spreading false rumors, threatening state security, and offending the head of state in connection with a series of political articles, according to  defense lawyer Godefroid Kabongo. The November 30, 2006, edition of L'interprète included stories critical of President Joseph Kabila's leadership while several articles in the February 29 edition discussed Kabila's health, according to CPJ research.

As an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting our colleagues worldwide, we call on you to use the mandate of your office to uphold the rule of law and respect fundamental human rights to ensure the two men have access to adequate medical care and a fair and transparent judicial process. We believe that the ongoing detention of these journalists under the circumstances is a setback for the government's stated commitment to judicial reform.

A Human Rights Assessment report released by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in DRC found that "violations of the 48-hour constitutional period for keeping detainees in a holding cell are systematic." In 2005-2006 for instance, newspaper editors Jean-Marie Kanku of L'Alerte and Patrice Booto of Le Journal and Pool Malebo were also abducted by state security agents in Kinshasa, held incommunicado for days and weeks, and subsequently charged for stories critical of the government, according to CPJ research. We urge you now to use your influence to end DRC's longstanding pattern of extrajudicial arrests and unconstitutional detention of journalists.

Earlier this year, reporter Maurice Kayombo of the Kinshasa monthly Les Grands Enjeux spent 34 days in jail on criminal charges after he sought out comment from a mining official who faced allegations of corruption. The charges were eventually thrown out.  We ask that you to put an end to the arbitrary imprisonment and criminal prosecutions of critical journalists and work to end impunity for officials and security forces responsible for these arbitrary arrests. Such practices run counter to the country's transition to democracy.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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