Ottawa man jailed in Congo over links to opposition

An Ottawa man has been arrested in the Congo, caught up in the political powder keg that is the Central African country, his family says.

Family says Fabien Kalala was supposed to fly home last week for Christmas

Ottawa man arrested in Congo

CBC News at 6 (Ottawa)

10 years ago
Fabien Shambuyi Kalala was coming home for Christmas when he was jailed. 1:57

A University of Ottawa student and former player on the school's football team has been caught up in post-election turmoil in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The family of Fabien Shambuyi Kalala, 26, says he was arrested last week as he was preparing to return to Ottawa for Christmas and resume his studies.

Kalala is one of dozens of people picked up off the streets of capital city Kinshasa in the wake of the country's presidential elections, now under scrutiny by global observers.

And Canada needs to step up its own condemnation of the November vote before arrests devolve into far more violent confrontations in a country that has already lost millions to war and disease, analysts say.

Friends and family of Kalala say he was at the airport in Kinshasa last week, on his way home to Ottawa, when three police officers arrested him, and drove him to a special detention centre for foreigners.

They say the officers told Kalala he was being arrested by order of the police chief for "insulting" President Joseph Kabila. Kalala had been in the Central African country for a few months, working as a security guard for presidential challenger Etienne Tshisekedi.

Family members believe the arrest of Fabian Kalala (foreground) is directly connected to his relationship with Etienne Tshisekedi (centre), who challenged current Congo President Joseph Kabila for the presidency. (CBC)

Last Thursday Kalala was transferred to the notorious Makala prison in Kinshasa, where he remains.

Family 'very afraid'

His family in Ottawa became worried when he didn't call before Christmas, his mother said in an interview.

Repeated calls to his cellphone were eventually answered, only for his family to hear him arguing with police officials, Marie-Therese Kapinga told The Canadian Press.

"We're afraid, we're very afraid," she said.

Friends have also received a text message from Kalala in prison, asking for help. 

Family members believe Kalala's arrest is directly connected to his relationship with Tshisekedi, the president's challenger. 

Kabila had taken over leadership of the Congo after his father was assassinated in 2001 and was elected president in the country's first elections in 2006.

Tshisekedi, a veteran of African politics, had boycotted those elections.

In the 2011 ballot, the Congolese election commission said Kabila won 49 per cent of the vote, with Tshisekedi capturing 32 per cent, but the U.S.-based Carter Center said the results "lack credibility."

A protester in Toronto holds up a sign during a march on Monday for democratic reform in the Republic of Congo. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

The vote results also sparked protests in Ottawa, Toronto and several U.S. cities over what many Congolese considered a fraudulent election.

Kalala a political prisoner, family friend says

Henriette Yakibonge, a family friend, who helped organize the rallies in Ottawa, believes Kalala is a political prisoner and says she's afraid for his life. 

"They can kill you there anytime," Yakibonge told CBC News. "They can do whatever they want anytime there. 

"I think [for] Fabien, it's a matter of time. If nobody tries to save his life, he's going to be gone." 

Yakibonge said consular officials have visited Kalala in prison, but it's not clear when the last visit took took place. 

A spokesman for Consular Affairs Minister Diane Abolonczy said officials are aware of a Canadian under arrest.

"Canadian officials in Kinshasa are providing consular assistance to a Canadian who was arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo and officials in Ottawa are in contact with his family," John Babcock said in an e-mail.

Human Rights Watch says more than two dozen people were killed in the weeks following the vote, and hundreds more injured, while Amnesty International reported dozens of arrests amid growing political tensions.

Kabila was sworn-in as president on Dec. 20, but Tshisekedi insists he is the victor and declared himself president.

"Tshisekedi is sitting on his militant young men and they are being picked off one by one at home with a knock on the door at 4 a.m., 5 a.m.," said Frank Chalk, director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies at Concordia University.

"He can't sit on them forever. …At a certain point, they are going to arrest him and the stack is going to blow. We have to head that off. "

Both the United States and the European Union have expressed alarm over the electoral results, with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling last week for a review of the process by Congolese and international officials. A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird wouldn't go that far.

"We continue to urge all parties to exercise calm and restraint, and for all political actors to avoid inciting violence or taking action that might lead to a further deterioration of the security situation," Rick Roth said in an e-mail.

"Free, fair and transparent elections are crucial for peace and stability in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the region."

Canada urged to take stronger action

But Canada needs to push harder, Chalk said. The government needs to flatly reject the results and call for a recount in the same vein as the U.S., he said.

"This is something the government of Canada could do that would get a lot of attention because we're sort of the gold standard in this area," he said.

Canada contributed $9 million over five years to the UN to help fund the election and it's fair to ask tough questions of the process, Chalk said.

"We're footing the bill for a lot of this. It's not imperialist, it's not colonist to say 'We're paying the bill so there's some conditions you have to meet,"' he said.

The situation in the Congo deserves as much scrutiny as Canada has given elections in other emerging democracies, said Payam Akhavan, an international law professor at McGill University and a former UN legal adviser.

Since 2009, Canada has deployed more than 400 people as election observers around the globe, according to statistics from the Canadian International Development Agency – including some 200 alone for the Ukrainian elections in 2011.

For the elections in the Congo, six Canadians went as part of a larger E.U. contingent of 118 observers.

Minister of International Co-operation Bev Oda told the House of Commons earlier this month that was the largest delegation allowed.

"Africans deserve no less than Iranians or Egyptians or Russians when it comes to human rights and fair elections," said Akhavan.

"Economic interests should not blind us to the principles that we claim to uphold in our foreign policy."


With files from The Canadian Press