Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) new President Felix Tshisekedi on Wednesday pardoned about 700 political prisoners who were jailed under his predecessor.
Tshisekedi signed the decree, fulfilling a promise he made earlier this month to do so during his first 100 days in office.
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Among those set for release is Firmin Yangambi, who was sentenced in 2009 to 20 years in prison on charges of being a threat to national security.
Also being freed is Franck Diongo, an opposition figure who was sentenced to five years.
Amnesty International praised Tshisekedi’s move, saying in a statement it was “to be applauded as a crucial first step towards restoration of human rights in the country”.
“His administration must now go further and guarantee that no one else is arrested, detained or prosecuted simply for expressing their opinions or for peacefully exercising their human rights,” Amnesty’s International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, Sarah Jackson, said.
“Much remains to be done to improve the country’s dire human rights record. It is essential that those responsible for violating human rights in the DRC are held accountable, and victims receive appropriate reparations,” she added.
Tshisekedi urges exiles to return
Tshisekedi was declared the winner of the December 30 election, leading Congo to its first peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium nearly 60 years ago.
He succeeded Joseph Kabila, who governed the largely impoverished but mineral-rich central African country for 18 years.
He defeated Kabila’s hand-picked candidate Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary and rival opposition candidate Martin Fayulu, among others, in the ballot.
But election observers reported a number of irregularities during the vote and there were widespread opposition allegations it was marred by fraud.
Fayulu, meanwhile, rejected the result and accused Tshisekedi of making a secret deal with Kabila.
Tshisekedi and Kabila issued a joint statement last week confirming “their common will to govern together as part of a coalition government” on account of Kabila’s Common Front for Congo coalition holding 342 of the 485 seats in the DRC’s parliament following the December vote.
Tshisekedi, who was an opposition leader, has promised to reinvigorate justice and fight corruption in Congo.
He made the declaration at the beginning of March in the presence of members of the government, military, civil and judicial authorities as well as members of the diplomatic corps.
The president has also said he would work actively to ensure the conditions for a rapid return of those who left the country for political reasons.
While on his first international trip to the neighbouring Republic of the Congo in February, he urged tens of thousands of political exiles to return home, saying everyone would be needed to move Congo forward.