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Lifetime of tracking killings in Congo ends in activist’s own

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KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Floribert Chebeya Bahizire went about his work with an accountant’s meticulousness. He was trained to count numbers, and his life’s work became adding bodies: those jailed, those tortured, those killed by a repressive government.

Early on the morning of June 2, Chebeya, Congo’s best-known human rights activist, was found dead in his car in the Mont Ngafula area of this capital city, his hands tied behind his back. The Congo police inspector general had summoned him for questioning the afternoon before.

"I’m in front of the office," Chebeya said in a text message to his wife at 5:20. "Keep track of me," said his message sent two minutes later. That was the last she heard from him. She later received a message from his phone, but said she is certain it was not from her husband.

Now, more than three weeks later, the "Chebeya Affair," as his killing has become known, continues to be told day after day on the front pages of Kinshasa’s newspapers. His death touched off an outcry that has not stopped, here or abroad. The U.N. secretary general said he was "deeply shocked" by Chebeya’s death, and the United States, European Union and French governments expressed concern and called for an independent inquiry.

The police inspector general, John Numbi, one of the most powerful men in the government of President Joseph Kabila, has been suspended. Officials have announced investigations, several officers have been arrested, and Interior Minister Adolphe Lumanu announced on national television that Kabila was "determined" to get to the bottom of Chebeya’s death. No cause of death has been released, and no charges have been filed, according to Human Rights Watch.

Suspicions about who ordered the death, and whether it was someone high in the government, persist. "He was quite a thorn in their side," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"People are angry about this, and touched," said Jospin Tono Goda, a clergyman peering at the outdoor bulletin boards where newspapers are posted.

"We’re in mourning," said Claude Boilama, a civil servant, standing next to Tono. "He defended everybody. This was somebody of great courage."

Nearly 1,000 mourners and diplomats attended a funeral service and burial for Chebeya on Saturday in Kinshasa. Dozens of riot police officers were on hand, but no violence was reported.

Human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents are routinely harassed or even killed in this strategic, mineral-rich country in the heart of Africa, but Chebeya was not an ordinary victim. He was the short, bespectacled, intense man who kept going, kept investigating, and kept speaking out, on the radio, in news conferences and at the head of demonstrations, year after year, in the face of constant threats and occasional beatings.

He pursued multiple investigations at the same time from his spartan, unmarked offices on a hillside here: the repression of political opposition, awful conditions in the prisons, the suspicious death of a young woman who had said she was Kabila’s sister.

To the outside world he was the vital on-scene witness, through the carefully documented bulletin of the organization he led, La Voix des Sans Voix, or Voice of the Voiceless, to what Human Rights Watch called "the systemic nature of political repression under President Kabila."

His experience of that repression was direct, and frequent. In March 2009 the Congo police raided a news conference he was giving, lifted him up, threw him down stairs, handcuffed him and jailed him. He did not give up, however.

With no answers coming from the government, speculation and questions about his death abound.

This time, did the police kill Chebeya? Was someone high up behind his killing? Why has the body of his driver not been found? Was it just a coincidence that the killing was shortly before a major celebration planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of independence on June 30, which Congo is using to try to prove that it has put civil war and instability behind it? (Indeed, the top hotel here is buzzing with Western businessmen pursuing mining deals with government officials.)

Against the government’s narrative of normality Chebeya offered the opposite view.

"Individual and Collective Liberties Constantly Trampled" is the title of his Bulletin No. 58, February-April 2009. Inside he documented case after case — a political opponent tortured and beaten into unconsciousness by security agents, human rights activists beaten with rifles and forced to strip naked, peaceful demonstrators arbitrarily arrested. Small cases all — the routine accompaniment to unpunished mass killings and torture documented by Human Rights Watch in a stinging 2008 report on political repression in Congo, "We Will Crush You."

"He was showing that the elections of 2006 did not lead to the rule of law," said Jean-Claude Katende, president of the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights. Chebeya’s death was a clear message from the authorities, Katende said: "Everybody should shut up." The investigations now under way, he said, are "not credible."

While emphasizing that the perpetrators remain unknown, Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch said, "Undoubtedly the government had a motive."

Chebeya’s widow, Annie Mangbenga Nzinga, has no doubt that her husband’s trip to the police offices on June 1 led to his death. Speaking calmly, with controlled anger, in a bare room in their house she was occupying until his funeral, she recalled that he had mentioned the appointment that morning. He did not seem particularly concerned, she remembered.

"He’s been under threat most of his life," Nzinga said. "The security services did not accept the work that he did."

When she went to visit him in prison in March 2009, the police officers taunted her, she recalled. "We’re going to kill him, and rape you," she said they told her.

But there was never any question of giving up.

"He was a man who was faithful to his convictions, full of integrity, and not corrupted," Katende said. "For Congo, where corruption is massive, this is very unusual. It’s a shame we had to lose a man like that."


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