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U.S. urges Congo to allow rights activist to resume work

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Wednesday urged the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which is cracking down on dissent before elections due in November, to allow a prominent rights activist to continue working in the country.

The Congolese government on Tuesday said it had refused to renew the visa of Ida Sawyer, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in the country, a move that follows expulsions of other foreign researchers in a tense election year.

Sawyer, who has worked for Human Rights Watch in Congo since 2008, has been among the most vocal critics of what the United Nations and rights groups say is a growing crackdown on dissent before elections scheduled for November.

“We’re very concerned by the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s decision not to renew the visa of Human Rights Watch senior researcher for the Congo,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau said at her daily briefing.

Trudeau said that Sawyer’s “forced departure” along with the expulsion of researchers from the Congo Research Group and Global Witness earlier this year “is incompatible with efforts to support greater transparency, accountability and democracy.”

“We urge ... the Congolese government to allow Human Rights Watch senior researcher to resume her important work in the DRC without delay,” said, calling on all sides in the country to “to respect Democratic norms and to refrain from violence.”

The constitution requires President Joseph Kabila, in power since 2001, to step down after the polls. Opponents accuse him of seeking to delay the vote to hold onto power. The government says that enrolling new voters will take more than a year.

Dozens of people were killed in anti-government protests in January 2015 over a proposed revision to the country’s electoral code that could have delayed the election by years.

Sawyer criticized security forces at the time of using “unlawful and excessive force.” Last January, she called for targeted sanctions against officials responsible for violence against civilians.

The government denies using excessive force against protesters or targeting its political opponents.

The U.S. government imposed sanctions on the capital Kinshasa’s police chief in June for what it described as the violent suppression of opposition to Kabila’s government.

Additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Kinshasa; Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jonathan Oatis