A former judge in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has said she believes the country's Constitutional Court, which ruled that President Joseph Kabila can stay in power beyond his mandate, was manipulated by the executive power.
In an interview with IBTimes UK, Chantale Ramazani Wazuri said Kabila is using every tool at his disposal to hold on to the presidency, despite his second and final term ending at midnight on 19 December.
In May 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that Kabila can stay in office until the next election, without giving a timeframe. Presidential elections were due to be held last month, but did not go ahead. The government claims they will take place in April 2018.
"I think that the President of the Republic could not be acting the way he is today, in violation of the constitution," said Wazuri. "The constitution also needs to be respected," she added.
"Personally I am convinced that the constitution comes first and it's not a decision from the [Constitutional] court that can overthrow the constitution. I am conscious that the Constitutional Court was manipulated like I was. It's the system."
How was Judge Chantale Ramazani Wazuri 'manipulated'?
In 2015 the governor of the stable and mineral-rich Katanga province, Moise Katumbi, resigned from the ruling party in protest at the government's attempts to "bypass the constitution." He would later go on to announce his candidacy for the presidency.
In June 2016 Katumbi was found guilty of illegally selling a property in Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga. He was sentenced in absentia to 36 months in prison. The case against him was brought by a Greek national, Alexandros Stoupis.
"I worked on the case that opposes Alexandros Stoupis to Moise Katumbi," said Wazuri. "When I was given the case I knew that Katumbi was a politician, the former governor of Katanga. At the time, everyone was speaking about Katumbi, he was always on TV. But I didn't know him personally nor had I ever met him in person.
"The threats started as soon as the first day – when Katumbi's case was filed. The day the case was submitted, Stoupis' lawyer Ambroise Kamukuny told me: 'It's a sensitive case, a case involving the Presidency, involving Kalev'."
Kalev Mutond is the director general of the National Intelligence Agency [Agence Nationale de Renseignement, ANR]. Mutond has been "among the principal architects of the government's drive to repress political dissent," according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). He was sanctioned by the US on 12 December.
Wazuri said she was ordered to settle the case on 20 June. "On the day of the hearing, Kamukuny – who was supposed to start at 9am – arrived early to tell me I had to take the case into deliberation the same day and not take into consideration the evidence that Katumbi's party would present to me," she said.
"I was told to reject the evidence, reject exceptions raised by Katumbi's party, with the goal being to ensure the case was taken under deliberation. After I rejected the evidence and the exceptions during the hearing that morning and asked Katumbi's lawyers to leave the courtroom, I asked Stoupis' lawyers to state the facts and took the case into deliberation.
"We [the judges and magistrates] didn't have time to read the case, to examine the content.This was an attempt to make him ineligible, to prevent him from running for president because he is a candidate," the judge added.
Wazuri claims the First President of the Court of Appeal of Lubumbashi, Paulin Ilunga Tanda, contacted her with a warning: the president is following the case. "You must be careful", she was told. "The next day, he [Tanda] called me and said: 'You must dictate this sentence, say it is three years in prison and [order] him to pay a fine of $1m (£808,000) and his immediate arrest.'
"I told him I couldn't do that. Why should I? He told me: 'You have to do it.'" She alleges that her colleagues were not given the time to read the case or to deliberate. "There were a lot of irregularities in the form and in the content. It's a 10-year-old case," said Wazuri. "I escaped. I didn't wait to be killed."
'The justice is in the hands of the President of the Republic'
The same night, she claimed she and her colleagues were "surrounded by [the] military telling me to sign the conviction." One of her colleagues, who refused to do so, left the court. "Tanda told me to bring him a photo of the magistrate [who had left] and his details as well as his address. He was very angry. He told me that if I don't sign I would be dismissed, I would be sentenced to 10 years in prison," the Congolese judge alleged.
"We were scared of what would happen to us if we didn't sign. In this fear, we were forced to sign, to deliver the judgement the two of us. That is illegal." Wazuri's colleague did not return and a sense of unease took hold. "After that initial fear, I had a problem of conscience," recalled Wazuri. "I thought I've just sentenced an innocent person."
She went on to write a letter to a number of top officials, including the president, prime minister and president of the Constitutional Court recounting everything that had happened. "They sent military to my residence, arrested my driver and my picture was sent at the borders, so I escaped. I didn't wait to be killed."
But, Wazuri claimed, judicial intimidation extends far and wide in the DRC. "We are in a system where the judiciary's power is manipulated by the executive's power," she said. "We are in that system and no one wants to denounce it. They are afraid to lose their job, afraid to be dismissed, to lose their position.
"The justice is in the hands of the President of the Republic. The Constitutional Court and other institutions are instrumentalised by the executive power [but] no one dares to denounce this.
"Kabila uses magistrates, even the Constitutional Court to keep himself in power [and] eliminate all opposition. At any moment, the people are going to rise up."