By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday voiced concern about reports of rising political tension in the Democratic Republic of the Congo due to uncertainty about a presidential election scheduled to take place later this year.
The U.N. statement comes days after three Congolese activists, arrested hours before a general strike in February to demand that President Joseph Kabila leave power when his mandate expires this year, were sentenced to a year in prison.
"The Secretary-General is profoundly concerned by reports of increasing political tensions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo linked to the continuing uncertainty surrounding the country's electoral process," U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said in a statement.
He said Ban "calls for the strict respect of the fundamental freedoms and rights enshrined in the constitution ... (and) urges all parties to exercise restraint and express their views peacefully, including in the context of demonstrations scheduled to take place on 26 May."
Dozens of Kabila critics have been arrested since last year as part of what the United Nations and rights groups say is an escalating crackdown on political dissent ahead of a presidential election scheduled for November.
Kabila is ineligible to stand for re-election after serving two elected terms but opponents accuse him of trying to delay the poll to hold onto power. Congo's highest court ruled last week that Kabila could stay in power if elections did not occur by the end of his mandate.
The Kinshasa government says it is unlikely to be able to organize the vote on time due to logistical and budgetary constraints. It denies that any of the arrests are politically motivated.
Congo has never undergone a peaceful transition of power. The former Belgian colony was ruled for decades by Mobutu Sese Seko and since then eastern Congo has been plagued by war and instability.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Ross in Kinshasa; Editing by Sandra Maler)