Goma, DR Congo -
Most of the 1 170 inmates who broke out of a Goma prison during a rebel offensive in November were still at large Wednesday and the Congolese authorities have had to publicly appeal for calm after possess lynched at least six suspected escapees.
In the worst case of mob justice, five people accused of armed robbery in the Goma suburb of Munigi were burned alive by angry residents on November 30, the eve of the rebel pullback from the city, police said.
Congolese prisons are not known as the most impregnable in the world but the November 19 escape, as the M23 rebels were about to capture the city, ranked as one of the largest prison breaks ever recorded.
Taking advantage of the chaos as regular forces retreated from the city, the main hub in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, the inmates hammered a hole in the prison wall.
Officials had warned at the time that the mass escape would have a negative impact on the security of those residents who remained in Goma during the fighting.
The M23 withdrew to a few miles outside Goma under international pressure but amid continued uncertainty over the fate of the city, the population has increasingly taken justice into its own hands.
In recent days, a suspected thief survived a lynch mob by the skin of his teeth in the Katindo neighbourhood but another in the Mabanga district didn't make it.
“We ask the population not to mete out mob justice. Measures have been taken to ensure justice is served so do not take it upon yourselves,” Marie Shetmasi, spokeswoman for the North Kivu provincial government said in a public appeal last week.
A policeman in Goma argued that such incidents started occurring after the M23 rebels took control of the city and their military spokesman Vianney Kazarama allegedly urged the population to take charge of its own security.
“You must look after your own security. We will assist you in guaranteeing your own protection” but we no longer have a prison,” he was quoted as saying.
The Muzenze prison is now an abandoned charred carcass. Its walls have no windows nor doors and the little equipment it had has long been looted.
Detention conditions were inhumane and even one of the now jobless wardens, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, described the prison as “the worst in the region.”
“Prisoners here lived in conditions that were close to hell,” he said.
The entire Muzenze prison was initially designed to accommodate a maximum of 150 inmates but up to 200 could be crammed into a single 20-square-metre cell, he added. They were only given food every other day.
The Red Cross and the Caritas aid group have repeatedly warned in recent years that detention conditions at Muzenze failed to meet all basic international standards.
A panel from locally-based non-governmental organisations assessed the cost of repairs at $50 000. The American Bar Association, a charity which has been active in the region, offered to cover part of the expense. - Sapa-AFP