The BBC reported this week that a minister in the Democratic Republic of Congo has ordered a jail in the capital, Kinshasa, to release a dozen goats, saying the animals were being held there illegally. According to the story: “The minister said many police had serious gaps in their knowledge and they would be sent for retraining.”
The goats, it seems, were about to appear in court–they faced charges of “being sold illegally by the roadside.”
The official, Deputy Justice Minister Claude Nyamugabo, apparently found the four-legged prisoners during a routine jail visit. Unfortunately, Nyamugabo neglected to do anything about the thousands of two-legged inmates held illegally behind bars in appalling conditions in Congo’s destitute, overcrowded prison system, including journalists.
In fact, newspaper editor Simba Ponte and his assistant, Davin Tondo, have been behind bars since March after their biweekly published a series of stories critical of President Joseph Kabila. The journalists were kidnapped by state security agents, detained incommunicado for several weeks, and finally taken to court. They face criminal charges including spreading false rumors, threatening state security, and offending the head of state. They have been denied bail despite a government prosecutor’s admission that their months-long pre-trial detention was illegal and reports of Ponte’s poor health in June.
Ponte’s situation became all the more distressing after the United Nations mission in the country, MONUC, the world-largest peacekeeping force, expressed alarm at rising prison deaths in July.
Despite rhetoric in support of judicial reform, the government–the first issued from a ballot process since the 1960s–has struggled to end a longstanding pattern of extrajudicial detentions and unconstitutional detentions of journalists, among other citizens. Earlier this year for instance, 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.
In June, CPJ addressed a protest letter to Minister of Justice Symphorien Mutombo Bakafua Nsenda appealing for Ponte’s release and access to adequate medical care. The letter was hand-delivered to the Congolese ministry of justice by local press freedom organization Journaliste en Danger. CPJ never received a response but a JED lawyer told CPJ this week that Ponte’s health has since improved and that a verdict in his case was expected in the coming days or weeks.
Like many institutions in this troubled country the size of Western Europe, the Congolese justice system faces enormous challenges in implementing reform and restoring confidence in its ability to protect the rights of the public, journalists included, and perhaps even goats. Not the other way around.