, LUBUMBASHI, DR Congo, May 11 – DR Congo police Wednesday used tear gas and stun batons against thousands of supporters of powerful opposition figure Moise Katumbi, who stormed a courthouse protesting allegations he had hired foreign mercenaries.
The police action came after Katumbi backers forced their way inside as he was due to appear for a second court hearing over his alleged use of mercenaries, including Americans.
- The wealthy owner of the prestigious Tout-Puissant Mazembe football club, is accused of hiring several foreign mercenaries, notably Americans, as his private guards.
- Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba told a news conference on Wednesday that there was "documented proof" that former American soldiers and South Africans were among the foreigners working for Katumbi in Katanga.
- Katumbi last week said he would run against Kabila in elections due this year, but whose dates have not been announced.
The 51-year-old, who is President Joseph Kabila’s leading rival and the former governor of mineral-rich Katanga province, has slammed the allegations as “a grotesque lie” and “machination”.
Police used stun batons to drive out the crowd from inside the court and then fired tear gas to drive them out of the complex.
After that, the flamboyant Katumbi, sporting an all-white outfit and a scarf in the colours of the national flag, entered the court for the closed-door hearing.
The wealthy owner of the prestigious Tout-Puissant Mazembe football club, three-time winner of the African Champions League, is accused of hiring several foreign mercenaries, notably Americans, as his private guards.
Justice Minister Alexis Thambwe Mwamba told a news conference on Wednesday that there was “documented proof” that former American soldiers and South Africans were among the foreigners working for Katumbi in Katanga.
Katumbi last week said he would run against Kabila in elections due this year, but whose dates have not been announced, triggering domestic and international concern that Kabila plans to extend his tenure by changing the constitution.
Katumbi was an ally of Kabila for a decade but quit the ruling party in November over the president’s decision to split several provinces, including Katanga, formerly the size of Spain but now carved up into four separate entities.
US ‘deeply concerned’
The US embassy said in a Facebook post that it was “deeply concerned about the accusations of mercenary activities” brought against Katumbi.
“We are aware of the detention on April 24th of an American citizen who was working in Katanga as a security advisor. Mr Darryl Lewis was not armed and allegations he was involved in mercenary activity are false,” it said.
It added that he worked for a private company that provided services to clients around the world.
One of France’s top lawyers, Eric Dupond-Moretti, told AFP that he was going to join Katumbi’s legal team following a request from the politician’s lawyers and several damning reports by human rights groups.
He said he would seek international observers at the trial and was ready to involve the International Criminal Court in The Hague as well as the United Nations.
Katumbi a week ago accepted to run for president on behalf of an opposition coalition.
The following day he asked the UN mission in the country for protection, saying he felt he was “in danger”.
He said his home had been surrounded by security forces and two of his bodyguards had been arrested.
Human Rights Watch on Monday slammed the case as “targeted actions against a presidential aspirant and close supporters.”
“The recent developments in Lubumbashi come in the context of a broader crackdown against activists, opposition party members and others who have urged that presidential elections be organised,” it said.
DR Congo authorities are under pressure from the international community to hold the presidential poll as planned in November before Kabila’s second and constitutionally last mandate ends.
He took over on his father’s assassination in 2001 and first elected in 2006. The country has been in crisis since his re-election in 2011 in polls marred by irregularities and massive fraud. His second term expires in December and the constitution bars him from standing again.