YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – In a controversial move, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) announced the lifting of its 21-year moratorium on executions.

This drastic measure is a response to the surging violence and insurgent attacks in the nation’s eastern provinces. The government says it aims to deter collaboration with the M23 rebels by citizens, military, and police personnel.

The February 13 text signed by the Congolese Justice Minister, Rose Mutombo, notes that “acts of treachery or espionage have taken a heavy toll on both the population and the Republic in terms of the immensity of the damage suffered,” and therefore the reinstatement of capital punishment is meant to “rid our country’s army of traitors on the one hand, and to curb the upsurge in acts of terrorism and urban banditry resulting in the loss of human life on the other.”

Numerous members of the military – including top officers from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) armed forces – alongside lawmakers, senators, and influential business leaders from the eastern region, have been apprehended on charges of “aiding the adversary.”

These detentions have taken place against the backdrop of the ongoing hostilities between the DRC’s military and the M23 rebels. The Congolese army’s retreat and the capitulation of its supporting militias in the wake of the M23’s advances have raised alarms about the possibility of the rebels infiltrating the security ranks – often with the complicity of people charged with defending the country.

In reinstating the death penalty, the government has argued that the moratorium was “seen by all these offenders as a guarantee of impunity, because even when they were irrevocably condemned to capital punishment, they were assured that this sentence would never be carried out against them.”

The development has received significant pushback from rights organizations, including Catholic institutions and the leadership of the Church.

A leading Catholic prelate has particularly taken exception to the reinstatement of the death penalty in the DRC. Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo of Kinshasa condemned the new development as “a step backwards.”

In a March 17 interview with the French-language Catholic television channel, KTO, Ambongo said he found it “abnormal that a government that claims to be responsible could take such a decision.”

“This is a step backwards! I don’t think that a responsible government can raise such an option to punish people who are called traitors,” the cardinal said.

He said he found it ironic that a death penalty should be passed on people considered traitors, whereas the greatest traitors are actually those in power.

Ambongo pointed out that when people in power “don’t serve the interests of the people, they are the ones we have to start considering as traitors, because they don’t assume the roles for which they have been entrusted, that is, service to the population.”

“I wouldn’t want us to take advantage of a vague notion of traitors to settle political scores,” the cardinal said.

Ambongo also serves as the president of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM) and is a member of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinals.

Reacting to the reinstatement of capital punishment by the Congolese government, FIACAT – an international federation of mostly Catholic NGOs advocating for the abolition of capital punishment – said in a collective statement that they followed the development “with shock and dismay” and denounced “the dramatic consequences of a resumption of executions, in the event that this proposal were to be applied.”

“The signatory organizations recall that the application of the death penalty will have no effect on the ground apart from fueling false and dangerous ideas according to which the death penalty could contribute to putting an end to war and atrocities to Eastern DRC,” the FIACAT statement says.

The group said only the rule of law and the enhancement of justice can help fight impunity.

“The resumption of executions of those sentenced to death would mark a most regrettable step backwards in view of the positive efforts made by the Congolese authorities with a view to abolishing the death penalty since the establishment of the moratorium in 2003,” the statement reads.

More than 800 people sentenced to death are detained in DRC prisons. In 2022, courts handed down more than 163 death sentences. The same year, the country voted for the first time against the United Nations resolution for a universal moratorium on executions.

FIACAT argues that what has happened in the DRC is at variance with the general trend in Africa today. In 2023, 27 African states abolished the death penalty.

The group called on President Felix Tshsisekedi to reverse the legislation and instead focus attention on the “lethargy” that has characterized the dysfunctional judiciary system.