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U.S. slaps travel curbs on DR Congo election officials for abuses

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Friday imposed travel restrictions on five top officials from Democratic Republic of Congo, including the heads of the country’s electoral body and constitutional court, accusing them of corruption during the presidential elections.

FILE PHOTO: Corneille Nangaa, president of Congo's National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI), speaks during a press conference announcing the results of the presidential election in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 10, 2019. REUTERS/Jackson Njehia/File Photo

Friday’s surprise announcement comes nearly a month after the United States welcomed the constitutional court’s ruling that opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi had won the Dec. 30 vote, despite widespread concerns by the international community over the outcome of the contentious election.

U.S. special envoy for Africa’s Great Lakes region, Peter Pham, is currently in DRC, a State Department officials said, his first visit to the country since his appointment in November.

The U.S. travel and visa curbs affect Corneille Nangaa, president of the country’s election commission CENI; his deputy Norbert Basengezi and adviser Marcellin Mukolo Basengezi; Aubin Minaku Ndjalandjoko, president of DRC’s National Assembly; and Benoit Lwamba Bindu, head of the constitutional court.

The restrictions also affect their families.

“These individuals enriched themselves through corruption, or directed or oversaw violence against people exercising their rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” the State Department said in a statement.

“They operated with impunity at the expense of the Congolese people and showed a blatant disregard for democratic principles and human rights.”

Tshisekedi’s victory was marred by accusations that he struck a backroom deal with former President Joseph Kabila in Congo’s first transfer of power via an election in 59 years of independence.

Pre-election polls had predicted a landslide win for another opposition leader, Martin Fayulu, who said he had been a victim of fraud.

Nangaa said he had not been informed of the U.S. decision and rejected the department’s accusations that he was involved in corruption.

“I reject such measures, which are unjust, as I haven’t been involved in any type of corruption,” he told Reuters by phone.

Norbert Basengezi also rejected the accusations against him. “I have never been corrupted. I have organised elections that brought peace to Congo,” he told Reuters.

In a Feb. 15 report to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted “the mistrust expressed by some opposition actors, civil society and some international actors” over the election process.

However, he urged the international community to support Congo as it strengthens its democratic institutions and tackles human rights abuses.

Additional reporting by Giulia Paravicini in Kinshasa and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Richard Chang and Marguerita Choy