Gen. Célestin Kanyama, the primary commander of Operation Likofi
Gen. Célestin Kanyama, senior commander of Operation Likofi

It’s a familiar story around the world: gangs of youths target poor slum dwellers. The police mount a major operation – but with little or no evidence haul in anyone they can find. In Kinshasa it took a deadly twist: 51 youths were summarily executed. A year later, despite promises of justice, there is no sign that any of the senior police officers have been prosecuted.

This report by Human Rights Watch has just been released.

DR Congo: Police Operation Kills 51 Youth
Suspend Commander of Anti-Crime Campaign Pending Investigation

(Kinshasa, November 18, 2014) – Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo summarily killed at least 51 youth and forcibly disappeared 33 others during an anti-crime campaign that began a year ago, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. “Operation Likofi,” which lasted from November 2013 to February 2014, targeted alleged gang members in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa.

The 57-page report, “Operation Likofi: Police Killings and Enforced Disappearances in Kinshasa,” details how uniformed police, often wearing masks, dragged kuluna, or suspected gang members, from their homes at night and executed them. The police shot and killed the unarmed young men and boys outside their homes, in the open markets where they slept or worked, and in nearby fields or empty lots. Many others were taken without warrants to unknown locations and forcibly disappeared.Suspected gang members taken to police camp

“Operation Likofi was a brutal police campaign that left a trail of cold-blooded murders in the Congolese capital,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Fighting crime by committing crime does not build the rule of law but only reinforces a climate of fear. The Congolese authorities should investigate the killings, starting with the commander in charge of the operation, and bring to justice those responsible.”

A grandmother’s testimony

Grandmother of a 19-year-old killed by police during Operation Likofi:

It was when I had just gotten back from a funeral wake around 12:45 a.m. when they knocked on the door and shouted, “Open the door!” My husband asked who was there. They said they were “state agents.” My husband refused and they said, “If you don’t open the door, you will see [what happens].” My husband opened the door, and there were seven or eight policemen wearing balaclavas so we couldn’t see their faces. I started to cry and to scream. They saw one of my grandsons and said immediately, “That’s him.”

They dragged him out of the house. Then we heard three gunshots. I lost consciousness and the kids in the house started to cry. He didn’t die right away. He could still breathe a bit and he tried to drag himself to the other side of the avenue, just in front of our house. We couldn’t take him to the hospital because we knew that the hospitals weren’t treating people like him. He died there, and then at 6 a.m., the police pickup came. They took his body and left. Since then, we haven’t had any news, and we don’t know what they did to his body.

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews in Kinshasa with 107 witnesses, family members of victims, police officers who participated in Operation Likofi, government officials, and others. Human Rights Watch also released new video footage and photographs, including of suspected kuluna who were killed during Operation Likofi and interviews with their relatives.

The Congolese government launched Operation Likofi on November 15, 2013, following a public commitment by President Joseph Kabila to end gang crime in Kinshasa. Kuluna had been responsible for a surge of armed robberies and other serious crimes across Kinshasa since 2006.

During the three-month operation, police conducted widespread raids, targeting many who had nothing to do with the kuluna. Some were street children, while others were youth falsely accused by their neighbors in unrelated disputes. Some happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In all the cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, those who were killed posed no imminent threat to life that would have justified the police using lethal force.

Initially the police appeared to use their brutal tactics as a warning to others. Many victims were beaten and humiliated by the police in front of a crowd before being killed, and the police sometimes called people to come look at the body after executing a suspect. In many cases, they left the body in the street, perhaps to frighten others, and only later collected it for transfer to the city’s morgues.

When the United Nations and local human rights organizations publicly raised concerns, the police changed their tactics: instead of executing their suspects publicly, they took those arrested to a police camp or an unknown location. According to police officers who participated in Operation Likofi, as well as a confidential foreign government report, some of the suspected kuluna abducted by the police were later killed clandestinely.

Police warned relatives of victims and witnesses not to speak about what happened, denied them access to the bodies, and prevented them from holding funerals. Congolese journalists were threatened when they attempted to document or broadcast information about Operation Likofi killings. Police told doctors not to treat suspected kuluna who were wounded during the operation, and government officials instructed morgue employees not to talk to anyone about the bodies piling up in the morgue, because it concerned a “confidential government matter.”

A military magistrate who wanted to open a judicial investigation into a police colonel who allegedly shot and killed a suspected kuluna detained during Operation Likofi received oral instructions from a government official to “close [his] eyes” and not follow up on the case.

“The evidence implicates senior officials in the killings and disappearances, as well as the subsequent cover ups,” Bekele said. “Family members deserve to know the fate or whereabouts of their children who were taken away or killed by the police. Congolese authorities should immediately make this information available and ensure that the victims’ families are able to seek justice and organize funerals without fear of reprisal.”

Command of Operation Likofi officially alternated between Gen. Célestin Kanyama and Gen. Ngoy Sengelwa. Police officers who participated in the operation and a senior police official interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that, in practice, Kanyama was the primary commander of Operation Likofi who gave the orders on how the operation should be conducted. Police officers said Kanyama gave orders to kill suspected kuluna and was present during some of the attacks.

Kanyama, in a meeting with Human Rights Watch in August 2014, rejected these allegations and said the reports of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances were “rumors.”

Other senior government and police officials acknowledged to Human Rights Watch that there were cases of police misconduct during Operation Likofi, including killings. However, magistrates assigned to the operation said that no police officers who took part in Operation Likofi were arrested or convicted for killings or abductions, although some were convicted for extortion and other lesser offenses.

Human Rights Watch called on the Congolese authorities to immediately suspend Kanyama and launch a judicial investigation into his alleged role in the abuses committed during the operation.

On November 13, family members of 25 victims who were killed or forcibly disappeared during Operation Likofi called for justice in a letter to Congo’s national prosecutor. They urged the government “to inform us as soon as possible on the fate of our missing children, to tell us where those who were killed are buried, and to allow us to organize funerals with dignity and in accordance with our customs.” They also called for investigations and requested that “the highest civilian and police officers involved in the operation are brought to justice … and that reparations are given at the end of the trials.”

On October 15, the UN published a 21-page report documenting summary executions and enforced disappearances committed by police taking part in Operation Likofi in Kinshasa. Two days later, the Congolese government told the UN human rights director in Congo, Scott Campbell, to leave the country.

“The expulsion of a senior UN official for exposing police abuses during Operation Likofi shows that Congolese authorities are not serious about tackling the crimes committed by the police,” Bekele said. “The government should focus on investigating and prosecuting those responsible for the crimes, not continue to cover them up.”