KINSHASA: Congolese authorities cancelled the passport of opposition leader Moise Katumbi, his office said in a statement on Friday, just days after the exiled politician gathered thousands for an opposition rally in the capital Kinshasa.
Katumbi, a millionaire businessman and former governor of Democratic Republic of Congo’s copper-producing Katanga province, is seen as the leading opponent in delayed elections scheduled for December, two years after President Joseph Kabila's constitutional mandate ran out.
Critics of Kabila say he has deliberately delayed polls beyond his allotted two term limit to extend his power, and has sidelined popular opposition figures in an attempt to quell dissent. Kabila denies any wrongdoing.
Katumbi has been in exile, living mainly in Belgium, since May 2016 when he was accused of real estate fraud. State prosecutors later sentenced him to three years in prison on the fraud charges and also accused him of hiring foreign mercenaries. He denies these charges.
Despite his exile, Katumbi successfully led an opposition rally in Kinshasa on June 9, using a video link to address his supporters.
The statement said Katumbi noticed his passport had been cancelled on Wednesday while going through customs in Belgium. It said Katumbi was in transit, returning from Israel and on his way to the opening ceremony of the football World Cup in Russia.
"This incident shows the relentlessness of the jurisdiction against Moise Katumbi. His basic right to own a passport like all Congolese citizens has been violated," said the statement.
The government said Katumbi's semi-biometric passport was no longer valid, following a controversial decision in September 2017 to force all Congolese nationals to travel on expensive biometric passports.
Katumbi unsuccessfully applied for a new biometric passport in Belgium in February 2018.
"Congolese citizens have stopped using semi-biometric passports for almost a year now," government spokesman Lambert Mende told Reuters on Friday. "I do not understand why everyone is surprised that this should also be imposed on Mr. Katumbi."
He added that only the Congolese embassy in Belgium could comment on the reasons for rejecting his application.
Katumbi repeatedly vowed to return to his country to contest the elections. In a rare opinion poll published by New York University’s Congo Research Group in March, he came out as the most popular of Congo’s hypothetical presidential candidates, with 24 percent saying they would vote for him.
But his ability to run is contested. In April Congo's attorney general opened an investigation into allegations that Katumbi once held Italian citizenship. Second nationalities are prohibited by the constitution, although the rule is not rigorously enforced.
(Reporting by Fiston Mahamba; Writing by Sofia Christensen; Editing by Edward McAllister and Richard Balmforth)