KINSHASA (Reuters) – Human rights groups demanded on Tuesday that Congo’s authorities release street children rounded up after political protests in Kinshasa that stoked tensions ahead of a decisive presidential run-off next month. Over 800 people, including nearly 200 minors, were initially arrested following clashes last week between the security services, street children and supporters of Jean-Pierre Bemba, who is running against incumbent President Joseph Kabila.
Historic elections held in Democratic Republic of Congo on July 30 have resulted in Kabila and Bemba, the two frontrunners in the polls, heading for a deciding run-off set for October 29. Even before the elections, the first free vote in the vast, former Belgian colony in more than 40 years, rights groups had warned that feuding politicians might try to exploit Kinshasa’s thousands of street children in their campaigns. Although many of those detained since last week have been freed, more than a dozen children and some 100 other men and women, some with babies, remained in custody on Tuesday inside the police compound in Kinshasa.
"Give us bread," shouted some of the detainees, held in an area of concrete slabs covered with corrugated roofing, as police ordered Reuters journalists out of the compound.
"We are going to the police to try to ensure the release of the remaining children," Ambroise Bakajeka, interim head of a Kinshasa street children’s charity known as REEJR, told Reuters.
"This is a huge violation of their rights," said Amigo Ngonde, head of the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights. "They should have been released by now … We don’t know why they were arrested in the first place," he added.
The police have denied any political motivation behind the detentions, saying they were merely part of the fight against criminals and bandits.
The July 30 first round vote went ahead mostly peacefully, protected by more than 17,000 United Nations soldiers. Congo has the world’s largest U.N. peacekeeping mission. But when the Kabila-Bemba run-off was announced on August 20, rival soldiers loyal to the two men fought three days of gunbattles in Kinshasa in which at least 30 people were killed. The largely pro-Bemba capital remains tense, his supporters have taken to the streets in protest several times this month and analysts fear further clashes with the security services.
Kinshasa police chief General Patrick Sabiti said the arrests had nothing to do with last week’s protests. "It was a police operation to arrest people we suspected of committing crimes," he said.
The elections in Congo are aimed at ushering in a new era after a 1998-2003 war that killed some four million people, mostly from hunger and disease, and crippled a nation already on its knees after decades of dictatorship and corruption. With no support from the government and just a handful of charities offering assistance, groups of children and youthful street hawkers roam the crumbling capital’s streets. "We wake up like this, we go to sleep like this … and we only get a bit of food in the evening," said tired-looking Deki Kitenge, 19, one of those arrested last week.