Senior Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) officials face the imposition of sanctions led by the United States if President Joseph Kabila stays in power beyond his electoral mandate, which expires in December. The warning from the US Embassy in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, is set against the backdrop of an ongoing so-called "sham trial" of Kabila's popular opponent and presidential candidate, Moise Katumbi.

The former governor of the mineral-rich Katanga province and leader of the G7 opposition coalition was back in court today (11 May) to answer allegations that he hired foreign mercenaries – including US citizen Darryl Lewis – to destabilise the government in Kinshasa. A large number of Katumbi supporters in his southern stronghold were subjected to tear gas discharged by police outside the courthouse.

The allegations have been vehemently denied by Katumbi. The US Embassy in Kinshasa told IBTimes UK: "We are concerned that the Congolese government is using the case of a detained American to manufacture claims of US mercenaries in the DRC. We have absolutely no reason to believe such claims. Mr Lewis has been detained by Congolese authorities since 24 April."

Kabila has not committed to holding free and fair elections in November 2016 as required by the constitution. The president's alleged attempts at subverting democracy have angered the nation's international partners. The US Embassy told IBTimes UK that it is considering imposing sanctions if Kabila does not step down from power once his second full term in office expires later this year. The DRC constitution includes a two-term presidential limit.

The US takes a leading stand on DRC elections

The US Embassy said: "We are looking actively at the possibility of implementing sanction via DRC Executive Order (E.O. 13671), which was issued in 2014 to update an existing E.O. It is aimed at dissuading those who would engage in actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions in DRC or threaten the peace, security or stability of the DRC.

"We have conveyed that to President Kabila and his team. Secretary Kerry met with him a few weeks ago in New York, and our Special Envoy to the Great Lakes of Africa, Tom Perriello, has been proactively engaged in the region over the past few months.

"We are still hopeful that we can get the Government of the DRC and President Kabila to do the right thing. The DRC constitution is very clear that the President's term ends in December, and they must have an election, and we have conveyed that to him. We are also working very closely with our international partners to ensure we are in sync on the issue of sanctions."

'Congo is at an historic crossroads'

Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the investigation into Katumbi as "politically motivated and [...] part of a broader crackdown against political opponents, activists and others" who oppose Kabila. The organisation also welcomed the prospect of targeted sanctions to force democratic change.

"Targeted sanctions on those responsible for the crackdown, including travel bans and asset freezes, would send a strong message to Kabila and his inner circle that there are consequences for their brutal repression," HRW's Deputy Africa Director Anneke Van Woudenberg told IBTimes UK.

The US is hoping to enlist the support of other countries in a bid to force democratic change in the DRC. It is understood that sanctions may include a travel ban to European countries in the Schengen zone.

"Congo is at an historic crossroads. How the situation plays out in the coming weeks and months will determine whether the people of Congo will have greater hope of a country that respects human rights and democratic institutions or whether it will remain mired in abuse," Van Woudenberg added.

"This is a crucial moment for the US government and other governments to stand together with the Congolese people for democracy and respect for human rights."

The call for foreign governments to unite in the face of a prospective dictatorship appears to have been heard in Europe, according to former planning minister Olivier Kamitatu. "We are heading towards sanctions taken by three countries: the US, France and Belgium," the opposition G7 coalition member said. "They have already taken this decision, if the regime's bigwigs continue [to undermine the electoral and democratic process].

"Two months ago I spoke about sanctions with Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Didier Reynders, who already told me about the decision. Tom Perriello [US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes] also publicly hinted at sanctions," Kamitatu said, adding that the measures will first target Kabila's inner circle. It is not yet clear whether the sanctions will be targeted at Kabila himself if he stays in power illegally.

"In their firing line are Kalev Mutond – who heads the government's intelligence agency known as the Agence nationale de renseignements (ANR) – and Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba," he said.

If Kabila does not hold free and fair elections, the relationship between the UK and the DRC will also be at risk come 19 December, according to Kamitatu. "If Kabila has not organised elections, the relationship will be cut between UK and DRC regime," the G7 politician said.

"Those countries have invested so much money and resources in security and judicial sectors, it is unacceptable that they are used to squash democracy. If elections are not carried out on time, it will for instance create a real problem with UK cooperation – and the UK is the first bilateral partner/donor in DRC."

An FCO spokeswoman said: "We are very concerned about the restrictions to political activity being carried out in the DRC, including the recent arrest and harassment of opposition and civil rights activists.

"The UK, and our partners in the EU, will consider the full range of possible responses as we react to the evolving situation," she added. "Imposing sanctions is a serious measure and all decisions over whether to impose them on any state take into account the circumstances of each individual situation. The UK does not plan to introduce sanctions against the DRC at this stage."

Earlier this year, the FCO said that it spends £1m ($1.4m) a day, or $500m (£348.6m) a year in the DRC "in order to support the development of the country, in order to support democracy and the rule of law".

NOTE (12 May):

- An earlier version of this article was headlined: "US to enforce DRC sanctions if President Kabila does not hold democratic elections". It has been amended at the request of the US Embassy in Kinshasa to state that the US is "looking actively at the possibility of implementing sanction[s]".