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Intimidation and attacks against land rights defenders in Tshopo and Equateur provinces

Status: 
Detained
About the situation

On 28 January 2020, during the first hearing of their case, the High Court of Yangambi rejected the request for provisional release submitted by five land rights defenders and members of the Yalifombo community. They have been detained in Kisangani Central Prison for five months, and are accused by the company Plantations et Huileries du Congo (FERONIA-PHC) of destroying oil palm plants and a company vehicle, breaking two windows and injuring a company agent. The next hearing of the case is scheduled for 18 February 2020.

On 9 November 2019, Alphonse Mombulu was arrested for allegedly illegally occupying property belonging to the PHC-FERONIA company. He was transferred to a cell at the Kisangani High Court with his two sons. On 13 November 2019, all three were acquitted and released after paying a fine of 1,000 US dollars.

On 18 September 2019, Mombulu Boyama Alphonse was arrested in Yangoma and subsequently detained at Lokutu Police Station following a complaint against him from the General Prosecutor of Tshopo province. The complaint is related to a protest by villagers against Plantation Huilerie du Congo (PHC-FERONIA) in March 2019. The arrest follows an attempted arrest on 15 September 2019, when police officers came to Mombulu Boyoma Alphonse’s property in the middle of the night. On this occasion, the human rights defender evaded the arrest by escaping into the river as the police did not present an official warrant and he thought that it was an attempted kidnapping.

About Réseau d’Information et d’Appui aux ONG nationales (RIAO-RDC)

RIAORéseau d’Information et d’Appui aux ONG nationales (Support and Information Network for National Organisations – RIAO-RDC) is a network of 256 non-governmental organisations and 333 farmers' associations across different provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. RIAO-RDC has played a prominent role working with communities in rural areas of the DRC to defend land and resource rights.

13 February 2020
Democratic Republic of the Congo: Continued detention of five land rights defenders in Tshopo province

On 28 January 2020, during the first hearing of their case, the High Court of Yangambi rejected the request for provisional release submitted by five land rights defenders and members of the Yalifombo community. They have been detained in Kisangani Central Prison for five months, and are accused by the company Plantations et Huileries du Congo (FERONIA-PHC) of destroying oil palm plants and a company vehicle, breaking two windows and injuring a company agent. The next hearing of the case is scheduled for 18 February 2020.

Iswetele Eswetele Mokili, one of the detained, is a Yalifombo community leader and member of the Réseau d’Information et d’Appui aux ONG nationales (Support and Information Network for National Organisations – RIAO-RDC), a network of 256 non-governmental organisations and 333 farmers' associations across the Democratic Republic of the Congo. RIAO-RDC has played a prominent role working with communities in rural areas of the DRC to defend land and resource rights.

Iswetele Eswetele Mokili was arrested on 12 September 2019 along with his deputy Dominique Kamatinanga Zuzi. A local teacher, Antoine Swimbole Lingele, was arrested the next morning. Robert Esumbahele, a pastor from Yalifombo was also arrested on that day after the police accused him of hiding an individual involved in the opposition to FERONIA-PHC in his house. He was arrested after refusing to allow his house to be searched. A pastor from Lokumete, Franck Lwange Etiota, was arrested as well, after he volunteered to accompany the detainees so that he could inform the village of their place of detention and the charges against them. According to local human rights defenders, the arresting officer was accompanied by guards from FERONIA-PHC, who arrived in a vehicle with the logo of the company. The arrests were based on a warrant issued by the Kisangani General Prosecutor. The five land rights defenders were not provided with the reasons for their arrests.

The land rights defenders believe they were arrested for protesting against the violation of an agreement signed with FERONIA-PHC in November 2018 to ensure that the company would build a school, a health centre and a water borehole before starting any exploitation of the lands used by the community. The defenders report that the company violated this agreement by expanding its oil palm plantations near the company's new palm oil mill in Lokumete, 5 km from Yalifombo, on 12 September 2019 before any construction of the promised community facilities had been completed.

The land rights defenders have been held in poor conditions, with one of them being denied necessary medical treatment. The prison is located 300 km from their village.

Irregularities were reported during the first hearing. The lawyer for an employee of the company claimed his client had been injured in June 2019 by a group of people opposing the activities of the company but when asked whether the alleged perpetrators were among the five detainees, the lawyer stated that it was impossible to identify those responsible as the group was too big. He said that the five detainees were not directly involved in the incident but rather acted as instigators.

The ongoing detention of the five land rights defenders forms part of a pattern of harassment of those opposing the company plantations and supporting the work of RIAO-RDC. Alphonse Mombulu Boyama, Mwingi community leader and land rights defender who has worked with RIAO-RDC, has been arrested and detained several times, following a complaint filed by FERONIA-PHC for illegally occupying the company’s property. He was released most recently on 13 November 2019, after paying a fine.

Front Line Defenders is seriously concerned by the ongoing detention and judicial harassment of the five land rights defenders, which appears to be part of a pattern of attacks against RIAO-DRC members and the community leaders involved in highlighting violations carried out by FERONIA-PHC.

13 November 2019
Alphonse Mombulu arrested and released for the third time

On 9 November 2019, Alphonse Mombulu was arrested for allegedly illegally occupying property belonging to the PHC-FERONIA company. He was transferred to a cell at the Kisangani High Court with his two sons. On 13 November 2019, all three were acquitted and released after paying a fine of 1,000 US dollars.

Prior to that, the human rights defender had been detained on the same charges on two occasions, in September and October 2019. On 26 October 2019, he was arrested and detained for two days at Lokutu Police Station. He was only released after paying the remainder of the fine issued against him on 18 September 2019.

25 September 2019
Intimidation and attacks against land rights defenders in Tshopo and Equateur provinces

On 18 September 2019, Mombulu Boyama Alphonse was arrested in Yangoma and subsequently detained at Lokutu Police Station following a complaint against him from the General Prosecutor of Tshopo province. The complaint is related to a protest by villagers against Plantation Huilerie du Congo (PHC-FERONIA) in March 2019. The arrest follows an attempted arrest on 15 September 2019, when police officers came to Mombulu Boyoma Alphonse’s property in the middle of the night. On this occasion, the human rights defender evaded the arrest by escaping into the river as the police did not present an official warrant and he thought that it was an attempted kidnapping.

Download the Urgent Appeal

Mombulu Boyoma Alphonse is the traditional chief of the Mwingi community in Tshopo province and a land rights defender. For the past few years, he has monitored and denounced land grabbing and human rights abuses related to the presence of multinational companies in his community and adjacent rural areas. He has worked with the Réseau d’Information et d’Appui aux ONG nationales (Support and Information Network for National Organisations – RIAO-RDC), a network of 256 non-governmental organisations and 333 farmers' associations across different provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. RIAO-RDC has played a prominent role working with communities in rural areas of the DRC to defend land and resource rights.

Mombulu Boyoma Alphonse is currently in custody at the police station in Lokutu. Previously, on the night of the attempted arrest on 15 September 2019, the police fired tear gas into Mombulu Boyoma Alphonse’s palm oil farm where he lives, before attempting to arrest him. He reported that the police officers who tried to arrest him told him that “we will shoot all of the villagers and see if RIAO-RDC will save them”. After being beaten during the attempted arrest, he escaped into the river. The same night, three members of his community were kidnapped by multiple unknown individuals and are still missing.

These incidents were not isolated. On 12 September 2019, human rights defender and community leader Iswetele Eswetele Mokili of Yalipombo and four of his colleagues were arrested in Lokutu by Major Mofanza from the Congolese National Police (Police Nationale congolaise); on this occasion, the police officer was reportedly accompanied by guards from PHC-FERONIA in a Jeep with the company logo, who were recognised by community members. The arrest was made under the mandate of the Kisangani General Prosecutor in Tshopo province. The charges against the human rights defender remain unclear.

RIAO-RDC filed a complaint with the Independent Complaints Mechanism of the German Development Finance Institution DEG and the Dutch Development Bank (FMO). DEG has provided financial backing for PHC-FERONIA ’s activities in the DRC, and is conducting a preliminary review of the complaint filed by RIAO-RDC on 5 November 2018. Since the complaint was filed, communities and international organisations have recorded incidents of intimidation and harassment of community members and human rights defenders. This includes the killing of a member of RIAO-RDC on 15 July 2019. Joël Imbangola was allegedly killed by a security guard who is employed by PHC-FERONIA in the vicinity of the company’s Boteka plantations in Bempumba, Equateur Province. At present, the accused security guard is in custody and the investigation remains pending.

Front Line Defenders is concerned by the attacks against RIAO-DRC staff and the community leaders involved in the complaint with PHC-FERONIA and urges the local governments of Tshopo and Equateur provinces to ensure that these land rights defenders are protected from abuse by police and company representatives.