U.N. head offers help to Congo activist death inquiry

KINSHASA Thu Jun 3, 2010 4:20pm EDT

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KINSHASA (Reuters) - The United Nations Wednesday offered to help Democratic Republic of Congo authorities investigate the death of a human rights activist.

Floribert Chebeya, head of the national network of human rights organizations and the Voice of the Voiceless, was found dead in his car in Kinshasa Wednesday after being called to a meeting with the Inspector General of Police, General John Numbi, Tuesday evening.

Human rights officials said they believed government officials may have been involved but police reports suggested a scenario involving a sexual liaison.

A U.N. statement said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for a transparent and independent investigation. The world body was prepared to help through its mission in Congo, it said.

Britain also urged Congo to conduct a full investigation.

Chebeya, who campaigned to uphold the constitution and improve prison conditions, had been harassed by authorities in the past and a report this year by rights group Amnesty International said he was at risk.

Over the past decade, Chebeya had focused on human rights abuses in some of the most politically sensitive issues in Congo, including corruption in the military and links between militias and foreign political forces.

SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES?

Police said Chebeya was found dead in the back of his car in the Mitendi neighborhood of Kinshasa early Wednesday.

Kinshasa police chief General Jean de Dieu Oleko said agents found no visible trace of violence. But his trousers were undone and beside him were two used condoms and two used pill cartons of a sex stimulant, he said in a statement. Some female hair was also found.

It was not yet known whether Chebeya had kept his appointment with Numbi.

Amnesty International, and other rights groups, said his death was suspicious.

"He was fearing for his life and human rights defenders are being targeted in Congo," Veronique Aubert, deputy director for Amnesty International's Africa program, told Reuters.

A U.N. human rights expert suggested official involvement.

"Floribert Chebeya was killed in circumstances which strongly suggest official responsibility," U.N. investigator for extrajudicial executions Philip Alston said in a speech to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva Thursday.

Kinshasa's police chief promised a thorough inquiry and the government expressed its regrets at the news of Chebeya's death.

Vice Prime Minister for Interior and Security Adolphe Lumanu said there were no clear leads but an investigation had been opened.

Human Rights Watch said friends, relatives and UN officials had been denied full access at the morgue Thursday when they visited the body.

"Irregularities already suggest there is an attempt at a cover-up," Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch told Reuters by telephone. "We are worried about a botched and deliberately perverted investigation."

Dolly Ibefo, Chebeya's deputy at VSV and who saw his body, said he saw blood on the nose, ears and mouth and called for an independent autopsy.

Chebeya's driver, Fidele Bazana, has been missing since Tuesday evening.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebahay in Geneva, editing by Angus MacSwan)

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