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Protesters Killed as DRC Senate Delays Vote on Controversial Electoral Law

Demonstrators burn tires to set up barricades during a protest in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital Kinshasa, Jan. 20, 2015.

The Democratic Republic of Congo's Senate has announced a one-day delay for its vote on a proposed electoral law that has sparked days of violent protests.

Senators now say they will vote Friday on the bill, which would require completion of a national census before a presidential election can be held.

The proposed electoral law was approved Saturday by the lower house of parliament. Senators say the delay in their chamber is because a commission is examining possible amendments to the bill.

Meanwhile, rights groups say dozens of people have been killed this week during protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The protesters object to a proposed new law that critics say would extend the rule of President Joseph Kabila. The Senate is expected to vote Thursday on the legislation, raising concerns of renewed violence.

The International Federation for Human Rights says at least 42 people have been killed in clashes with security forces in Kinshasa since Monday, when demonstrations erupted against the proposed electoral law.

The organization called for Congolese authorities to put an end to what it called an excessive use of force against protesters.

Kinshasa was mostly quiet Thursday morning, and opposition leaders and student leaders of the University of Kinshasa, the site of some of the fiercest confrontation, said they would wait for the Senate vote before deciding on their next move.

Human Rights Watch Congo researcher Ida Sawyer, speaking to VOA from Kinshasa, put the number killed somewhat lower, confirming 20 deaths since Monday.

“In many cases police and Republican Guard soldiers, who are part of the president's security detail, fired directly into crowds of protesters. In some cases, protesters also were violent and hurled rocks at the police and Republican Guard soldiers. At least two policemen have died in the protests,” said Sawyer.

Changes urged

Western powers have urged Democratic Republic of Congo to withdraw or re-draft divisive changes to electoral law.

Envoys from the United States, Britain, France and former colonial power Belgium met Senate President Leon Kengo Wa Dondo on Wednesday, a diplomat said, the day before a Senate vote on the legislation which has raised fears of further violence.

Opposition groups say the proposed law — which calls for a census before the next presidential election due in 2016 — is a ploy to allow Kabila to stay in power beyond the two terms mandated in the constitution. The government has denied this.

A census likely would take two to three years in the vast, underdeveloped country, which has few paved roads and many active rebel groups, especially in the northeastern provinces.

Persistent protests

Protests so far have involved student groups, opposition activists and civil society organizations. The influential Catholic Church also has opposed any move to delay elections.

“There does seem to be popular support for the protests and opposition to this idea of changing the electoral law to allow Kabila to stay in power, and it does look like if concessions are not made these protests could continue indefinitely," said Sawyer.

Protests also have been reported in Goma and Bukavu, in the eastern DRC.

On Wednesday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki expressed concern about the violence and called for “peaceful, credible, and timely elections in the DRC in accordance with the constitution.”

Some information from AFP and Reuters was used in this report.

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