GOMA — In the Democratic Republic of Congo, civil society activists say lynch mobs have killed nine suspected criminals in the eastern city of Goma since November. The activists blame the surge of so-called "popular justice" on the authorities' failure to track down and detain more than 1,100 inmates who were allowed to escape prison.
Lynchings were not uncommon in Goma even before rebel group M23 took control of the city in November and left it in early December. But since then, civil society and government leaders say there’s been an increase in the number of suspected criminals killed by mobs.
Jean Pascal Mugaruka is acting head of civil society for the city of Goma. He tells VOA that since late November at least nine people have been burned alive because they were caught stealing or were caught in possession of stolen property.
According to Mugaruka, people have been taking the law into their own hands because the justice system isn’t working and they were frustrated that more than 1,100 prisoners were let out of jail.
They were also taking revenge for abuses suffered at the hands of the M23 rebels, he said.
Several sources told VOA that the prisoners in the central jail were released by soldiers on November 20, just before the Congolese army abandoned Goma to the rebels.
For most of December the jail was unused, but in the past two weeks some of the detention blocks have been reopened.
There is an operational prison now in Goma, says Mugaruka, so lynch law can no longer be tolerated, even though the justice system is not yet fully operational, and the military tribunal which hears soldiers’ cases is not yet back in action.
He says civil society has spoken out against lynchings and is planning awareness-raising activities to campaign against the practice.
Goma civil society groups are calling on the authorities to track down the escaped prisoners, most of whom were soldiers convicted of armed robbery.
So far, says Mugaruka, less than 20 of the escaped convicts are back in the central jail, but the authorities are searching for the others.
He says the military police have offered $100 to anyone providing information leading to the arrest of an escaped convict, and the authorities have also organized mixed patrols of soldiers and police who are tracking down bandits, while others have been shot dead by the military police.
The head of the justice department in Goma, Lidia Masika, confirmed there had been an upsurge of lynchings in the city since the prisoners were released from the central jail.
Masika told VOA that there were currently only three escaped convicts back in the jail, all men who had given themselves up voluntarily. She said another group was being held at police and military jails elsewhere in the town, awaiting formal charges, but she could not say how many.
United Nations Radio in the Congo reported that fifty suspects, including some escaped convicts, were arrested during police raids in Goma late last month.
Mass escapes from prison have been occurring regularly in the DRC in the past few years.
Mugaruka says prisoners sometimes escape with the complicity of prison managers, who take bribes from prisoners’ relatives. He says political influence can also lead to breakouts.
A United Nations source who preferred to withhold her name said she was glad the prisoners had escaped, as some were in danger of dying from malnutrition.
Mugaruka said there had been cases of prisoners dying for lack of food in Goma’s jail. He said some food was provided in the prison, but not enough, and the stronger prisoners took more than their share.