KINSHASA (Reuters) - Six Congolese activists were sentenced on Wednesday to two years in prison, after they were arrested last week as they prepared for a general strike calling on President Joseph Kabila to step down, their lawyer said.
The activists from the Goma-based Struggle for Change (Lucha) were arrested last Tuesday, the day of the strike, as they prepared banners supporting the protesters. They were convicted of incitement to revolt, their lawyer, Georges Kapiamba, told Reuters. He said they would appeal the verdict.
The court dismissed charges of “association with criminals”, for which the prosecution had requested 10-year sentences.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch confirmed the verdict, which it said was part of an escalating government crackdown on Kabila’s critics.
“Blatant instrumentalization of justice to silence dissent must stop,” Ida Sawyer, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher in Congo, said in a tweet.
The government denies that anyone is arrested for political reasons.
Kabila succeeded his assassinated father in 2001 and won disputed elections in 2006 and 2011. He is barred by the constitution from standing for a third term.
But critics accuse him of working to delay a presidential poll slated for November so he can stay in power. Dozens died in violent anti-government protests in January 2015 over the issue.
Three other Lucha activists were arrested in the capital, Kinshasa, before last Tuesday’s strike. They were charged with incitement to civil disobedience, spreading false information and attacking state security, Human Rights Watch said.
Four Lucha activists were also sentenced to 12 months in prison last September for inciting civil disobedience after they encouraged public demonstrations on behalf of an imprisoned fellow activist.
At a news conference on Wednesday in Kinshasa, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said he was concerned about “the targeting of members of the opposition, media and civil society”, though he did not specifically mention the Lucha case.
Kabila has refused to comment publicly on his political future. He advocates a national dialogue to resolve what he calls logistical and budgetary difficulties in organizing the presidential and other polls scheduled this year.
Ban, who met with Kabila, opposition leaders and local activists, said he supports the idea of a dialogue. Most major opposition parties, however, have rejected the proposal, saying it is a pretext to delay elections.
Editing by Larry King