Kinshasa: Human Rights Watch on Tuesday denounced police in the Democratic Republic of Congo for summarily killing or forcibly disappearing at least 80 people during a violent crackdown on gang crime in the capital.
During Operation Likofi in Kinshasa from November 2013 to February this year, "uniformed police, often wearing masks, dragged `kuluna`, or suspected gang members, from their homes at night," the New York-based watchdog reported.
"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," HRW said.
At least 51 people were killed and 33 others forcibly disappeared after President Joseph Kabila publicly pledged to halt a surge of armed robberies and other serious offences, according to HRW, which interviewed witnesses, relatives of victims and police.
At the time, local rights bodies and prominent public figures protested at the cruelty of Operation Likofi ("punch" in the local Lingala language), which one police officer likened to commando assaults.
"If you refused to execute the orders, then you too were considered a `kulana` and killed," the officer was quoted as saying.
In the 57-page report, HRW detailed how police targeted innocent street children as well as youths accused by neighbours without evidence of criminal activity.
Last month, the government expelled the director of the UN Joint Human Rights Office after a UN report accused police of summarily killing at least nine men in a police station and making 32 others vanish.
Interior Minister Richard Muyej dismissed the report as "biased and partisan... with the clear intention of discrediting the PNC (Congolese National Police) and demoralising its agents".Like the UN office, HRW said uniformed, armed police in black hoods and without arrest warrants sometimes killed their victims in front of family members and neighbours, then warned witnesses to stay quiet and denied them access to the bodies for funerals.
"In many cases, (police) left the body in the street, perhaps to frighten others, and only later collected it for transfer to the city`s morgues," HRW said. Once police actions raised multiple protests, they began to take those rounded up to police premises and unknown destinations.
General Celestin Kanyama, said by police officers to have been the primary commander of Operation Likofi, told HRW in August he rejected accusations that he gave orders to kill "kuluna" suspects and was sometimes present.
Kanyama said the allegations were "rumours", while HRW has urged Congolese authorities to suspend him immediately and open a judicial inquiry into his role in the police sweeps.
"Operation Likofi was a brutal police campaign that left a trail of cold-blooded murders in the Congolese capital," said Daniel Beleke, Africa director at HRW.
"Fighting crime by committing crime does not build the rule of law, but only reinforces a climate of fear."
Muyej denied police wore hoods during the operation, and he released a list of about 30 officers punished for their actions during the raids, including five for murder and manslaughter and two others for kidnapping and arbitrary detention.