DRC prison
A prisoner stands in an alley of the Bunia Prison in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Activists arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were allegedly denied food for four days while in detention, campaigners have claimed. Dozens of activists were arrested on 16 February as the country's main cities were paralysed by a general strike called by a coalition of opposition parties and civil society groups, including the LUCHA (Lutte pour le changement, aka Struggle for change) movement.

While six LUCHA activists were detained in Goma in North Kivu ahead of the strike, two others went missing in the capital Kinshasa, according to Jean Bwenge, a young LUCHA activist.

The young men, Bienvenu Matumo et Héritier Kapitene, disappeared on the morning of 16 February at 06:00 (local time, 05:00 GMT). Earlier that night, as the pair were returning home after having visited some friends, they alerted their families about the fact that individuals in civilian clothes - believed to be agents of the Agence Nationale des Renseignements (ANR) - were following them. Matumo sent a final text message to his family: "Arrested". Since then, his phone was unreachable.

Kapitene's phone remained unreachable for part of 16 February, but then an unidentified man started responding to calls and tried to coerce those who were trying to contact Kapitene to identify themselves, "in a threatening voice".

Activists 'disappear', authorities deny arrest

"While officials from all security services (police, ANR and army) and the government vigorously denied having arrested the men, they mysteriously reappeared on Friday around 5pm and were presented to the prosecutor at the High Court of Kinshasa, Gombe," Bwenge explained.

Interviewed by the media, organizations defending human rights, and relatives of Bienvenu and Héritier, all authorities (including the commander of the Congolese National Police for the city of Kinshasa, General Kanyama, the Administrator General of the ANR Kalev Mutond, and the government spokesman Lambert Mende) all denied knowing where the two young men were, and denied having arrested them.

"Curiously, it is the ANR who brought them before the Office of the Public Prosecutor," Bwenge said.

DRC protests
Policemen detain a protester during clashes in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of Congo November 10, 2015. Police fired tear gas at hundreds of people armed with sticks and shovels protesting the arrest of several youth leaders in Congo's second largest city of Lubumbashi on Tuesday, a Reuters witness said REUTERS/Kenny Katombe

Charged for 'inciting disobedience against the authorities'

"We do not know if they have been abused or tortured, except that they were deprived of food since their abduction on Tuesday morning [13 February] until Friday evening, when they were presented to the public prosecutor," Bwenge claimed.

The two activists, who have since been accused of "spreading false rumours", "inciting disobedience against the authorities", and "acting against state security", are expected to appear before the justice of the peace to "regularise" their detention on Monday (22 February). Matumo and Kapitene could then be transferred to the Prison Centrale of Makala.

Matumo was arrested for the first time in October 2015 when he disappeared for a few days before the ANR in Kinsasa released him without charge.

"In LUCHA's view, there is no doubt: the abduction of Bienvenu Matumo et Héritier Kapitene is the work of the Congolese security services and is part of a clear strategy to wipe out our peaceful struggle for the respect of the constitution, the democratic alternation, and the holding of credible and transparent elections within the constitutional time," Bwenge said.

'Serious violation of human rights'

Bwenge said LUCHA vigorously condemned the security services' "cowardly and cruel methods, and the unjustified vicious harassment against activists of our citizens' movement around the country".

"To abduct peaceful citizens, detain them incommunicado and deprive them of food is a violation of the constitution and all the laws of our country, and a serious violation of human rights guaranteed by the most basic international law to which our country has subscribed."

LUCHA is calling for an independent joint investigation by the National Commission for Human Rights, the United Nations Joint Office for Human Rights (UNJHRO), and international human rights organizations to establish responsibility in the case, and to make recommendations in terms of prosecution, punishment and compensation for those responsible for the detention of the activists.

Supporters of the democratic changeover in DRC, who have been using the hashtag #Yebela (meaning 'Know-it' in Lingala, a language spoken in DRC), said they hoped last week's strike would help increase public awareness on the dangers of a sliding, or delay of the elections, and ask for incumbent President Joseph Kabila to step down.

Although Kabila is bound by the constitution to step down in December 2016 as he has served two consecutive terms since 2001, opposition groups have accused him of trying to postpone the November 2016 election and amend term limits to extend his rule.

DRC prison in Goma
Litter strewn in the yard of Muzenze prison in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images