On October 20, Modeste Bakwanamaha, mayor of the city of Beni in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), told Reuters by phone that “around 900” out of a total of “more than 1,000” prisoners held in the city’s jail were freed in an attack by Islamic militants.
Bakwanamaha’s numbers are misleading: According to multiple other sources, not “around 900” but 1,337 prisoners escaped, and there were 1,447 inmates held in the jail, not merely “more than 1,000.”
Reuters, which initially published a report with a headline “Suspected Islamists free 900 prisoners from east Congo jail,” citing mayor Bakwanamaha, later corrected the escapee figure to 1,300.
The misleading figures presented by mayor Bakwanamaha are significant in light of the prolonged international criticism of Congolese authorities for the chronic inhumane conditions in a detention system that’s been neglected for decades.
According to Human Rights Watch, prisons in the country are overcrowded and filled to quadruple capacity, with food deficiencies and “life-threatening” sanitary conditions, especially under the COVID-19 pandemic.
The United Nations Mission in DRC also reported in May that prison congestion is a “particularly acute” issue, estimating that “capacity on average is being exceeded three-fold,” with challenges “including poor living and working conditions, and overstretched resources in terms of security, personnel, healthcare, sanitation and budget.”
The Kangbayi central prison in Beni is no exception; it’s been populated at four times its capacity, journalists reported.
The early morning attack on Kangbayi central prison on October 20, when armed men took away more than 1,300 inmates, was carried out by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) jihadi group.
According to the Site Intelligence Group, the Islamic State also took credit for the raid in east DR Congo that came “just days” after an October 18 call by the IS spokesman Abu Hamza al-Qurasani for prison breaks globally.
Although some terrorism experts dispute direct ties between IS and the ADF, others cite the two groups as confirming their affiliation and both referring to ADF as part of Islamic State’s “Central African Province.”
ADF, formerly the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda, is one of the oldest militant groups in DR Congo, rooted in the eastern mountainous regions that are rich of mineral resources. The group is notorious for its grim record of attacks against civilians.
The United Nations Human Rights office said in July that attacks by ADF may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Armed militants have previously attacked the same prison in Beni. A June 2017 raid killed 11 and freed more than 900 detainees.
Just a month earlier, in May 2017, over 3,000 inmates escaped from Makala jail during a break also carried out by armed men.