DR Congo PM lashes out at arrest of justice minister

Proposed judicial reforms sparked protests in Kinshasa last week which further strained relations within the governing coalition (AFP Photo/Arsene Mpiana)

Kinshasa (AFP) - The Democratic Republic of Congo's prime minister has chastised President Felix Tshisekedi over the "arbitrary" arrest of the justice minister in a deepening government rift over proposed judicial reforms.

Justice Minister Celestin Tunda Ya Kasende was detained for several hours on Saturday after clashing with Tshisekedi over the legal changes, which set off two days of violent protests in Kinshasa last week.

He was later released without charge, with the prosecutor saying it was a "pointless hassle" according to one of his supporters.

The feud has pitted Tshisekedi loyalists against supporters of his predecessor Joseph Kabila, who still wields huge behind-the-scenes influence 18 months after standing down from the presidency.

"Members of the government have expressed their indignation at the humiliation suffered by their colleague," Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga's office said in a statement dated Saturday and seen by AFP on Sunday.

The ministers "condemn this arbitrary arrest" which they said was "in violation of the basic rule of law", the statement said, calling for an investigation into those who launched the arrest proceedings.

Several sources said Saturday that Ilunga had threatened to resign over the incident, a move that would have put an end to the fragile government coalition.

Both Ilunga and Tunda Ya Kasende are members of the Common Front for Congo (FCC) a grouping close to Kabila which sits alongside Tshisekedi's Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) in government and accounts for about two thirds of cabinet posts.

The controversial judicial reforms were put forward by the FCC and include proposals to define the powers of judges, which critics say is a ploy to muzzle the judiciary in a country known for its instability.

Angry Tshisekedi supporters took to the streets for two days last week in violent demonstrations against the changes.

Tshisekedi took office in January last year in the first peaceful transfer of power in sub-Saharan Africa's largest country after 18 years with Kabila at the helm.

While the handover eased fears that the country would plunge again into civil strife, Tshisekedi has faced a bumpy ride and the sprawling coalition remains a source of tensions.