Supporters of Denis Mukwege say he is at risk of assassination after criticism of armed groups
doctor who shared a Nobel prize in 2018 for his work with victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is at risk of assassination after the United Nations withdrew peacekeepers guarding his hospital and residence, friends and supporters say.
Denis Mukwege has received death threats in recent weeks after making a series of statements deploring recent violent incidents and calling for justice for perpetrators of possible war crimes committed in eastern DRC by militia, foreign troops and rebels.
His comments appear to have angered influential individuals in Rwanda, whose troops and proxies have been accused of involvement in some of the worst of the violence described in a 2010 UN investigation that Mukwege, 65, has repeatedly highlighted.
The investigation covers the two major wars in DRC from 1996 to 2003, which killed millions and left a legacy of conflict.
Last month Rwanda’s former defence minister James Kabarebe, who commanded Rwandan-led forces in the DRC between 1996 and 1998, dismissed the UN investigation as “propaganda” and said Mukwege was “a tool being used by families of those who lost the war”.
Following the broadcast of Kabarebe’s remarks on local TV networks, Mukwege received death threats by phone and on social media. The globally respected gynaecologist has also been criticised recently in pro-government Rwandan media.
Mukwege has escaped several assassination attempts in the past and had been guarded by UN peacekeepers almost continually since unidentified gunmen shot dead a member of his domestic staff in 2012. But supporters say the UN withdrew protection of the doctor and his hospital several months ago.
The UN peacekeeping force in the DRC – one of the biggest and most expensive in the world – had deployed troops at Panzi, near the hospital compound near Mukwege lives and works. A unit of about a dozen soldiers provided round-the-clock protection, and peacekeepers escorted Mukwege whenever he travelled.
However, the peacekeepers were withdrawn in May after an outbreak of Covid-19 and have not been replaced. A small detachment of local police, who are poorly trained, badly armed and often corrupt, remain at the hospital.
Physicians for Human Rights, a US-based NGO, said in a statement: “Dr Mukwege is a human rights champion, a renowned surgeon and a tireless advocate for the end of impunity for sexual violence and other atrocities in the DRC and globally. He must be protected from these acts of intimidation. It is incomprehensible that such protection … would not be restored urgently now given the seriousness of recent threats.”
Last week hundreds rallied in the capital, Kinshasa, to ask the DRC government to protect Mukwege, while others demonstrated in the doctor’s home town of Bukavu.
“We want justice and compensation for all the acts that Rwanda has committed in Congo, for all the massacres that have taken place,” said one demonstrator, Heritier Masingeni, before the rally in Kinshasa was broken up.
A protester held up a placard saying: “Hands off our Nobel laureate!”
A spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping force in the DRC, known as Monusco, said it was committed to the security of Mukwege and his hospital.
“The mission is working closely with the national and provincial authorities, including the Congolese national police, to ensure the necessary security arrangements are in place. The personal security of Congolese personalities is a responsibility of the authorities but Monusco is providing all possible support within its limited means,” he said.
All UN operations in the DRC have faced a chronic lack of funding, and the shortfall in donations is likely to have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The report that Mukwege has highlighted, the UN’s 2010 Mapping Report, documented 617 serious violent incidents between 1993 and 2003, saying they could amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide if investigated and tried in a competent court.
Mukwege has advocated for its implementation for many years, including in his Nobel speech in Oslo and at the United Nations general assembly.
The first Congo war in 1996 involved regular troops from Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
The second war, from 1998 until 2003, involved a dozen armies from the region, 30 armed groups and two main rebellions: one in the east supported by Rwanda and another in the north backed by Uganda.
Rwanda has always rejected allegations that its forces committed war crimes in Congo.
“General Kabarebe has not uttered a single threat. He finds that there are too many far-fetched accusations in this report,” Rwanda’s ambassador to Kinshasa, Vincent Karega, told Agence France-Presse.