In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the lawyer for an increasingly popular presidential candidate has been expelled from the country, six weeks before scheduled elections.

Oscar Kashala, a Harvard-trained doctor and presidential candidate accuses authorities of intimidation tactics ahead of July 30 elections, which are meant to be the first free and fair polls in over 40 years.

Last month, Congolese authorities detained more 30 men he was employing as political and security consultants and accused them of plotting a coup. They were released without charge.

Dr. Kashala's lawyer was then detained and, late Thursday, a week after he was taken into custody, expelled from the country.

Dr. Kashala says the actions of the Congolese security services amount to attempts to intimidate him in the run up to the election.
The government said the alleged coup plotters were a threat to national security, but that authorities were too busy organizing elections to try them. There has been no formal statement on the expulsion of Dr. Kashala's lawyer.

Diplomats, who are following Congo's peace process, and whose capitals are keen to see the polls offer the country a fresh chance after years of dictatorship, war and chaos, say they find the developments worrisome.

They say the arrest and expulsion of Dr. Kashala's lawyer, as well mounting attacks on the press and increasingly hostile political rhetoric, does not bode well for free and fair elections.

Earlier this week, the U.N. Security Council called on Congo's political players to tone down the political rhetoric and ensure the polls are free and fair.

The U.N. has some 17,000 peacekeepers in the Congo, but they are stretched thin, and fighting continues in much of the east of the vast African country, adding daily to the four million already killed since 1998.