A senior director of the Congolese Institute for Conservation and Nature, or ICCN, was fired Monday following allegations that he threatened colleagues and accepted bribes from a British oil-exploration company seeking to work in Africa’s first national park, according to Agence France-Presse.
Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch, or HRW, accused Guy Mbayma Atalia, a former scientific and technical director at ICCN of using violence and intimidation to convince co-workers not to oppose Soco International's plans to explore for oil in Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The park was created to protect the now-endangered mountain gorillas living there. Atalia denied the allegations.
According to HRW, Rodrigue Mugaruka Katembo, the warden at Virunga, claimed that Atalia told him he would be killed if he continued to oppose Soco's exploration plans. Katembo says he and his younger brother were later arrested, beaten and humiliated by Congolese military and police officers.
Another park warden told HRW that Atalia paid him and five park rangers $20 a day for 35 days to “go with them to meetings with the population in order to convince the population to support Soco's activities and to try to show they had the full support of the ICCN.”
In April, Virunga's director Emmanuel de Mérode was shot and seriously wounded in a botched assassination attempt. Mérode, a Belgian national, was a vocal critic of Soco's development plans.
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HRW says a number of other independent activists were also threatened with violence and death. After the attempt on Mérode’s life, three activists received threatening text messages. One read:
“You are playing with fire [name of activist], you are going to burn your second leg, it’s useless to change your car because we know all the cars and we’re everywhere you go with your team. Don’t believe that just because we failed to get your director that we are going to fail to get you.”
London-based Soco also denied any wrongdoing, saying in a statement that the company was “fully committed to conducting our business in an honest and ethical manner and we expect and require that our contractors, suppliers and agents will conduct themselves in the same manner.”
On June 10, Soco came to an agreement with the World Wildlife Foundation to stop all oil exploration in Virunga National Park.