Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Kinshasa on Friday night, into a city in lockdown, where protests were banned, soldiers were stationed on the main streets and police units were preparing water cannons on their trucks.
Mr. Harper is in the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo this weekend to attend a two-day Francophonie summit. But the massive police and military presence there on the eve of the summit was a sharp reminder of the human-rights abuses that have provoked some to suggest he should have stayed away.
Police in helmets and boots were everywhere in the city on Friday, with their trucks deployed in even the smallest side streets with water cannons at the ready, according to reports from Kinshasa.
Elite troops of the Republican Guard, notorious for shooting and killing opposition supporters in Congo’s widely discredited election last year, were also deployed on the streets of Kinshasa. A military helicopter flew over the home district of the main opposition leader, Étienne Tshisekedi, and police told his supporters to disperse.
About 200 opposition supporters who tried to protest on Friday were prevented from crossing a police roadblock. Riot police were reported to be stationed every 100 metres on some roads and a cordon was established around the Palace of the People, where the summit will take place.
A number of Congolese activists in Canada, including one man who went on a hunger strike for 48 days, have urged Mr. Harper to boycott the Francophonie summit.
Amnesty International called on the Francophonie members to condemn Congo’s rights violations “in the strongest possible terms.” Human-rights defenders and opposition leaders have been harassed, threatened and intimidated, and two were detained incommunicado by the intelligence services, Amnesty said in a report this week.
“The leaders of the Francophonie nations are assembling in a country where there are daily reports of egregious abuses,” Amnesty said.
Before flying into the city, Mr. Harper said his government had “grave concerns” about “human-rights violations” in Congo. “We will be expressing those concerns very clearly when we are in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Mr. Harper said in Senegal, where he spent two days before heading to Kinshasa.
A spokesman for his office said Mr. Harper might meet with opposition leaders or civil-society activists in Kinshasa. The spokesman said the visit was not an endorsement of President Joseph Kabila, whose election victory was marred by widespread fraud and violence.
But Mr. Harper’s comments were weaker that those of French President François Hollande, who will spend only a few hours in Kinshasa during the Francophonie summit and considered not attending at all. The French President said Congo’s human-rights record is “totally unacceptable.”
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois has also announced that she will not meet Mr. Kabila face-to-face during the summit because of his human-rights violations.
Mr. Harper has not explained the apparent contradiction of why he is attending the Francophonie summit in a country with a widely condemned human-rights record, while saying that he could boycott the Commonwealth summit next year in Sri Lanka because of human-rights violations in that country.