Human rights activists are appealing to the US government to take action to stem government repression in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) ahead of presidential elections set for November 2016.
The incumbent, Joseph Kabila, has been accused of seeking to prolong his rule into a third term, which is barred under the constitution. The polls could face a minimum delay of 13 months and 10 days, according to a timetable purportedly prepared by the country's electoral commission (CENI).
Echoing the UK Foreign Office view that it is still "technically possible" for the vote to be held on time, Ida Sawyer, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher in the DRC capital Kinshasa, said the US government, which has repeatedly called on Kabila to organise credible elections and step down, should use its "pivotal role" to impose sanctions.
"The US government needs to back up its words with action. Targeted sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown, including travel bans and asset freezes, is one important measure, ideally in coordination with the European Union," Sawyer said in a statement. "Such sanctions would send a strong message to Kabila and his inner circle that there are consequences for their brutal repression."
Her call comes as the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee is due to hold a hearing on Wednesday (10 January) on "good governance" in central Africa, a region afflicted by the Burundi crisis, where up to 900 people have been killed since protests broke out against President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial decision to stand for a third term in 2015.
While highlighting the danger that "a looming crisis in the DRC could push Burundi's troubles to the diplomatic sidelines", Sawyer, however, insisted violence in Congo can still be curbed.
"Such a step could help deter further abuses by the security forces, including during a new round of civic actions expected to begin across the country next week," Sawyer said. She added that the development of the situation will determine whether the Congolese people have greater hope of a country that respects human rights and democratic institutions or whether it will remain mired in abuse.
Critics of Kabila are facing death threats from the authorities for opposing attempts to prolong the president's term in office, rights groups claimed in December, highlighting a number of disappearances, alongside arbitrary arrests and "unlawful" detentions.
Delayed elections in DRC?
According to the timetable chart (dated 14 January), a partial revision of the voter register would take just over 13 months, while a complete revision would take 16 months and a day. CENI estimates the updates could cost as much as $290m (£200m).
The timetable was posted on Twitter by Michael Tshibangu, a lawyer and president of UK-based Association for Development and Democracy in Congo (ADDC). CENI has said it is unable to confirm the legitimacy of the note but two Congolese sources have vouched for its authenticity, according to Reuters.