January 2, 2015 / 1:32 PM / 5 years ago

Staff strike at Congo rape hospital accused of tax fraud

* Hospital, run by Nobel nominee doctor, accused of tax fraud

* Staff strike after bank accounts frozen, hitting care

* Director of hospital an outspoken critic of government

By Bienvenu-Marie Bakumanya

KINSHASA, Jan 2 (Reuters) - A Congolese hospital renowned for treating war rape victims has had its bank accounts frozen for alleged tax fraud, preventing it from paying its staff and prompting them to go on strike.

The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, run by Dr Denis Mukwege, says it is being unfairly targeted by the authorities in Democratic Republic of Congo. A local rights official said it was being punished for Mukwege’s criticism of the government’s failure to bring rapists and other rights abusers to justice.

Having treated thousands of women raped during 15 years of conflict in eastern Congo, Panzi has drawn international attention for its work to heal victims of sexual violence. Last year Mukwege won the Sakharov Prize, the European Union’s top human rights award, and was tipped for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Mukwege said in a statement that staff had gone on strike on Dec. 31 and the crisis was threatening the hospital’s ability to buy medicines. “We need to act urgently, in the interests of patients who we must provide better care for and in the interests of staff at Panzi who have not been paid,” he said.

In a separate statement, Panzi said 500 staff at the hospital had not received their December salaries.

A witness in Bukavu said hundreds of staff protested on Friday outside the local tax offices in South Kivu province.

Officials there did not comment but a spokesman for the health ministry said the problem related to “tax fraud”.

Antoine Fundiko, a doctor at Panzi, said the hospital had been handed a $600,000 tax bill even though, as a national referral centre, it should be exempt from paying tax on salaries.

While receiving a string of international prizes, Mukwege is a frequent and highly vocal critic of rights abuses, poor governance and lack of basic services in Congo. In November, he called on people across Africa to follow the example of Burkina Faso, where veteran leader Blaise Compaore was ousted in a revolt sparked by his bid to extend his time in power.

The message would have resonated in Congo, where President Joseph Kabila is weighing up his options as his second and final term in power is due to come to an end in 2016.

“The hospital is a victim of the criticism of its director. He is an embarrassing witness of all those who commit sexual violence and those who allow it to happen,” Jonas Tshiombela, a local rights activist, told Reuters. (Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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