Fears of bias as DRC reviews vote
Kinshasa - After incumbent Joseph Kabila was declared the winner of DR Congo's presidential election, the supreme court takes centre stage as the arbiter of a poll that five opposition candidates have rejected.
The court is charged with reviewing the election result, hearing disputes and officially naming the Democratic Republic of Congo's president for the next five years on December 17.
But the abundance of Kabila appointees on the bench has left both opposition leaders and international observers crying foul.
"The supreme court is Kabila's private institution," Etienne Tshisekedi, Kabila's top rival, told AFP after results announced Friday showed him as the runner-up with 32% of the vote to Kabila's 49%.
On October 28, the first day of the electoral campaign, Kabila expanded the court, adding 18 new judges to bring the total to 27.
The ruling coalition says the new judges were needed to hear the huge number of election disputes expected to arise from a race that had 11 presidential candidates and 18 864 people running for 500 national assembly seats.
But election monitors have had harsh words for Kabila's large power over the court.
"Judges are named by the president after being nominated by the Supreme Council of Magistrates, an institution whose members he also names indirectly," the European Union's election observer mission said.
"The independence of the supreme court has also been called into question by the naming of 18 new judges in the middle of the election campaign."
The Carter Centre, a non-profit organisation founded by former US president Jimmy Carter which only sent an observer mission, said ahead of the vote that it was "concerned about the lack of transparency" in the court's handling of pre-election issues.
Now that presidential poll results are out - parliamentary results are due in mid-January - candidates have 48 hours to file election disputes.
Third-placed candidate Vital Kamerhe has also rejected Friday's results, and three other opposition candidates called for the elections to be annulled even before the outcome was announced, alleging fraud.
Tshisekedi, who claims he in fact won 54% of the vote and has declared himself president, has rejected filing his grievances with the court, saying he does not want to legitimise it.
But the supreme court is almost certain to be inundated with other disputes. As the flood of grievances approaches, independent-minded lawyers and judges in the country have been critical of the court.
"They're lackeys. The judges, especially the new ones, aren't trained, so there's a loss of credibility," said a member of Lawyers Without Borders Congo, a professional organisation.
"The supreme court has never been transparent. It's manipulated."
The president of the Congolese Magistrates Union, Sambayi Mutenda, was more measured in his criticism but also severe: "With few exceptions, almost all the members of the court are subservient" to the ruling coalition, he said.
The new members "all have political connections," added the appeals court judge.
But Justice Minister Emmanuel Luzolo Bambi said critics should give the court a chance to prove itself as an election referee.
"Judicial mechanisms exist so that if someone before the court doesn't trust one judge or all the judges, he can challenge the make-up of the court," he said.
"You can't prejudge the impartiality of the supreme court. You would have to present a specific case of bias after it hears a dispute."