Lucha activists in DRC
A member of the Lucha movement canvases for support of their cause on April 24, 2015 in Goma. FEDERICO SCOPPA/AFP/Getty Images

In one of the biggest debacles of the Democratic Republic of Congo's (DRC) judicial history, six pro-democracy activists from the anti-government Lutte pour Le Changement (Lucha) movement have been told by a prosecution officer that they are "at risk of the death penalty" if convicted of inciting rebellion against state authorities.

The group was jailed as part of a government crackdown on activists calling on the president, Joseph Kabila, to step down from power when his mandate expires at the end of this year. They were handed a two-year in prison sentence on 24 February. Their jailing has been roundly criticised by the US, Belgium and France, as well as international human rights organisations.

The UK's reaction to imprisoning 'human rights defenders'

Their detention has also drawn strong condemnation from the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), who told IBTimes UK: "We are concerned about the arrest of a number of human rights defenders and opposition activists and are monitoring the situation closely. We are also concerned about the recent condemnations of activists belonging to the 'Lucha' group arrested during the General Strike in February.

"It is the responsibility of the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo to ensure that political freedoms, freedom of media and speech and human rights are respected to ensure a peaceful and fair environment for the elections."

Hearing without defence lawyers

The Lucha activists' appeal hearing was suddenly and unexpectedly been brought forward to 3 March, after the prosecution also appealed the sentencing on 29 February, claiming the district court was wrong to dismiss the crime of "criminal association". The prosecution asked for a 10-year sentence.

While the hearing was initially due to begin at 09.00 local time (07.00GMT), it got under way more than two hours later and without the defence lawyers. The defendant's representatives were not made aware of the time according to Lucha activist, Justin Kikandi.

The six activists had asked the court for a time delay of three weeks to better prepare their case with their lawyers. "They also castigated the fact that on the statements that they were handed, there was a reference to the crime of 'criminal association' alleged by the prosecution, which was initially the reason for which they had refused to sign those statements," Kikandi explained.

The Court of Appeal – after a short adjournment "to get in touch with the concerned lawyers" — then told the activists that it could only accept a 24-hour delay.

Trial a 'pseudo-legal excuse for a political decision'

Kikandi blasted the farcical proceedings. "The sole purpose behind this is to give a pseudo-legal excuse for a political decision that consists in considering Lucha as a criminal organisation, and thus to enhance the repression against anyone who will claim to be [from Lucha]. [This] goal has already been expressed by the government, including by its spokesman during his last press briefing in Kinshasa on 29 February".

Earlier this week, the Congolese government criticised Belgium, France and the US for speaking out against the jailing of the activists, with government spokesman Lambert Mende lambasting Western nations for their "contempt for the constitution", seemingly ignoring accusations against incumbent Joseph Kabila of seeking to unconstitutionally clinch a third term in power.

The trial, which Kikandi described as a "parody", is expected to resume on Friday 4 March at Goma's Court of Appeal.