Four pro-democracy activists have been released in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) 11 days after youth activist group, Lutte pour Le Changement (LUCHA), called on the president to release them. Those freed include Christopher Ngoyi, Fred Bauma, Yves Makwambala and Jean-Marie Kalonji.
Ngoyi was arrested in January 2015 during anti-government protests over proposed changes to the electoral law. Tensions are rising in the DRC as the population's expectation of a presidential election in November faces delay.
Under the country's constitution, President Joseph Kabila is required to step down from power when his second full-term expires in December this year. Critics accuse him of seeking to stay in office illegally.
Bauma and Makwambala were arrested in March 2015 during a workshop in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, to launch Filimbi, a platform to encourage Congolese youth to peacefully and responsibly perform their civic duties. They were arrested along with 26 others and faced a number of charges, including "plotting a conspiracy against the head of state", Amnesty International noted.
"The release of Fred, Yves and others is a rare positive step in what has been a very difficult year for freedom of expression in the DRC. The charges against them were politically motivated and must be dropped to ensure that their ordeal is over once and for all," said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for the Great Lakes.
"In a year marked by a draconian crackdown on dissent, activists and political leaders have found themselves behind bars at the hands of a justice system that has increasingly been used as a tool for silencing dissent as the deadline for holding elections looms," Jackson added.
"Fred and Yves are representative of a generation of activists that continues to resist being silenced. It is shocking that they could have faced the death penalty, when all they did was engage young people in peaceful activism."
Filimbi welcomed the release, but said it does not go far enough. "We are surprised that this is a provisional release. We believe that the government would use it a means of pressure to force us to work together, especially for the dialogue of President Kabila," Filimbi told IBTimes UK.
"President Kabila must leave the power at the end of his mandate even if the presidential election is not organised, the Constitution is clear," Filimbi added. "All charges should be dropped, anyone involved in this case should be prosecuted and all political prisoners must be released. On 19 December at the latest Kabila must leave power and if he does not resign the population will act according to Article 64 of the Constitution."
Despite the provisional release of Bauma, Makwambala and Ngoyi "after 18 months and 15 days in detention without trial", charges against them have not been dropped. Amnesty warned they remained at risk of re-arrest unless the charges were dropped completely.
The release of the political prisoners sparked scenes of jubilation and Congolese citizens took to social media to celebrate. Journalist Sarah Kazadi shared a video of a jubilant Bauma being greeted by scores of supporters as he left prison with the Congolese flag draped around him.