Days After Congo Prison Break, a Stunning Tally: Over Half the Inmates Fled

NAIROBI, Kenya — Long plagued by corruption and inept government, people in the Democratic Republic of Congo were confronting a new problem on Friday: thousands of prisoners on the lam, including hard-core felons and possibly war criminals.

In what appears to have been the biggest prison break ever in the African country, nearly 4,200 inmates were missing from its most notorious penitentiary, the maximum-security Makala prison in Kinshasa, the capital.

The prison break itself was not news — it happened on Wednesday, when members of a cultish rebel group known as Bundu Dia Kongo stormed a cellblock to free their leader. But government officials insisted at the time that only a few dozen prisoners had escaped along with him.

It took two days for the scope and violent nature of the escape to become clear, in what amounts to an enormous embarrassment for the country’s unpopular leader, Joseph Kabila.

The missing prisoners represented more than half the overcrowded prison’s population of 8,000. More than 80 people were killed during the escape, 20 vehicles were burned and a prison office was set ablaze, according to the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights.

The prison’s inhabitants include opposition leaders, war criminals convicted by the International Criminal Court and soldiers convicted of assassinating the president’s father and predecessor, Laurent Kabila. It was unclear whether any of them were among the escapees.

Ne Muanda Nsemi, the leader of Bundu Dia Kongo, which aims to restore the ancient Kingdom of Kongo around the source of Congo River, fled in the mayhem with the help of his supporters.

Mr. Nsemi, who calls himself a prophet and wears canary yellow robes and red bandannas, had been imprisoned since March, when he was arrested after clashes between his supporters and the police.

The prison break was regarded as another symptom of the worsening political instability and dysfunction surrounding Mr. Kabila, who has been dealing with uprisings across the vast country since he refused to step down as required by the constitution’s term limits last December.

Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, the justice minister, played down the number of escapees, saying there had only been 50. But rights groups and other witnesses insisted the true figure was many multiples of that.

Early Wednesday morning, Mr. Nsemi’s followers killed security guards at the main entrance of Makala prison, according to a senior prison official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to talk to the news media. They proceeded to the block where Mr. Nsemi was held and freed him.

“Other inmates took advantage of this situation and broke down the doors of their cells and fled,” the official said.

The prison, originally built to house 1,500, has long been criticized by rights groups because of its reputation for unlawful detentions, abuses and corruption.

On Friday, Congolese authorities detained 200 people, but rights groups condemned the arrests, saying the police were apprehending innocent civilians and pretending they were escapees. In particular, the groups said, several motorcycle drivers found without their national identification cards were being wrongfully held.

“This breakout demands a reform of Congo’s prison system, which is marked by huge corruption, unlawful detention of people, court delays and the nonrespect of the fundamental rights of those detained,” said Jean-Claude Katende, the national president of the African Association for the Defense of Human Rights.

Congolese prison breaks are not uncommon. On Friday, 90 inmates out of 97 escaped from a prison in central Congo. Those who did not flee were either sick or disabled, an official said.

The last prison break at Makala was in 1997, when Laurent Kabila took power after the longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed. Yet even then, the number of inmates who escaped was a fraction of the total who bolted to freedom this week.

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