Exiled Congolese opposition leader Jean-Pierre Bemba said on Tuesday his life was still in danger in his homeland, and the country’s senate threatened to strip him off his seat in his absence. Bemba, a rebel leader during Congo’s 1998-2003 war, came second to President Joseph Kabila in 2006 elections but fled to Portugal last April following serious street fighting between his personal guard and government forces loyal to Kabila.
The two days of clashes in the capital Kinshasa just over a year ago followed Bemba’s refusal to obey a government order to disband his 500-strong personal security detail. The unrest killed at least 300 people, including some 40 civilians. “Do you know many Congolese who have been attacked with tanks and bombed with mortars in their private homes?” Bemba said in a phone interview, adding he wanted to return to Democratic Republic of Congo but feared for his life.
According to senate bylaws, Bemba, a vice-president during the country’s 2004-2006 transitional government who was elected to the body last year, will lose his mandate if his absence from more than a quarter of a parliamentary session is unjustified. Bemba initially left Congo with the consent of the senate to treat a broken leg and missed all of last year’s sessions. But on Monday, the senate called on him to justify his absence from a new parliamentary session and said he risked losing his seat. Bemba said that health problems were no longer a factor hindering his return but that he considered himself in “forced exile” because of his security fears. “I would like to be in my country among my own people. But I want to be able to assure myself … that they are not going to attack my residence with tanks again,” he said.
In a March 29 letter to the senate leadership, Prime Minister Antoine Gizenga wrote that Bemba had never formally shown himself to be the victim of insecurity. Bemba, whose Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC) is the largest opposition party in the country’s parliament, said he would write to the government to suggest the appointment of mediators to negotiate a solution. “It’s a question that is political. And it must be treated politically, because my return must not coincide with a rise in tensions but should reinforce reconciliation,” he said.
A U.N. human rights report criticised government forces for the “excessive and indiscriminate use of force” as both sides employed heavy weapons and artillery in the street fighting in Kinshasa on March 22-23 last year. Rights campaigners including New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the government of carrying out a systematic crackdown on Congo’s fledgling political opposition in the aftermath of the violence. The government rejects the charges. The current senate session began on March 15 and is due to end on July 15, when Bemba’s absences will be counted and a decision is likely to be made concerning his fate.
Fabiola Miakassissa (Congo, AC07-09)
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