Pascal Tsaty Mabiala: Fears for ‘missing’ Congo opposition leader who protested vote on abolishing presidential term limits

Friends hope Mr Mabiala has gone into hiding after protests against Sunday's referendum became violent

Alistair Dawber
Thursday 22 October 2015 21:07 BST
The Republic of Congo’s former Defence Minister, Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, has not been heard from in several days
The Republic of Congo’s former Defence Minister, Pascal Tsaty Mabiala, has not been heard from in several days (YouTube)

A leading figure in the Congolese opposition who has encouraged supporters to join protests against Sunday’s referendum on abolishing presidential term limits has been out of contact for several days, leading friends to fear for his safety.

At least 11 people have died in the Republic of Congo’s capital, Brazzaville, and in the city of Pointe-Noire, since Tuesday when clashes broke out during a demonstration against President Denis Sassou Nguesso’s bid to change the country’s constitution to allow him to run for a third consecutive term of office.

Pascal Tsaty Mabiala’s mobile telephone number has been passed to The Independent, but repeated attempts to contact the country’s former Defence Minister have failed. “We are hoping that since the protests turned violent he has gone to ground and has been hiding. He is not answering his phone, and we are getting worried about the fact that we have not heard from him,” said a source close to the secretary general of the Pan-African Union for Social Democracy, the opposition party.

The source also revealed that members of Mr Mabiala’s inner circle are being careful not to discuss their own locations on open networks. A group of opposition figures was detained by the military on Tuesday, although Mr Mabiala was not among them. Human rights groups such as Amnesty International have condemned what they say has been the government’s disproportionate response to the protests, which, according to reports, has included the use of live fire.

A former paratrooper, Denis Sassou Nguesso played a key role in a 1968 coup, before being appointed president in 1979 (AFP/Getty)

“A heavy-handed response by security forces not only violates the protesters’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, but may inflame an already tense situation,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s Central Africa researcher.

“The use of force and the deaths of protesters must be independently, impartially and effectively investigated and if there are grounds to suspect individuals of criminal responsibility they must be brought to justice.”

Several protests – both for and against the referendum – have taken place in recent weeks. Opposition groups behind this week’s protests say that previous reports of between four and five people killed on Tuesday – the most violent day of demonstrations – have understated the death toll.

Photographs seen by The Independent, which are purported to be of injured demonstrators, show severe wounds, including the body of one man with what appears to be a gunshot wound to the head.

The Republic of Congo’s Interior Minister, Raymond Mboulou, told state television that the protests amounted to an “organised and co-ordinated insurrection”. But opposition figures said they were designed to include civil disobedience but were not an attempt to oust the President from power.

Much of the country’s communications infrastructure, including mobile telephone networks, internet connections and radio broadcasting, has been cut. Mr Mabiala may be out of touch because of this, but friends say their repeated and various attempts to contact him have all failed. His whereabouts are unknown, including to his family both inside and outside the country. Their most recent contact with him is believed to have been last Sunday.

In office for 31 of the last 36 years, Mr Sassou Nguesso, 71, is seeking to change the constitution to allow him to stand for election again. At present, the law in Congo prevents anyone from serving more than two consecutive terms, and blocks anyone older than 70 from standing.

A former paratrooper, Mr Sassou Nguesso played a key role in a 1968 coup, before being appointed president in 1979. He ruled the one-party state until 1992, when he won just 17 per cent of first-round votes in Congo’s first democratic presidential elections.

He returned to power five years later after wresting back the presidency, then won elections in 2002 and 2009 with large percentages of the vote. Should he win Sunday’s vote, he would be free to stand again in an election due next year.

Mr Sassou Nguesso played down his own ambitions in a Reuters interview in March, refusing to say that he wanted a third term. “We must not link my candidature to the debate over the constitution,” he said. “The debate over the constitution is going to take place.”

Once part of French Equatorial Africa, the Republic of Congo gained independence in 1960.

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