Brussels (AFP) - Belgium on Friday urged the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to scrap a heavy tax on a hospital caring for mass rape victims, saying it threatened the institution's survival.
Panzi hospital in the eastern city of Bukavu, which was founded by famed Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, announced this week that authorities had seized its accounts and that it could no longer withdraw money, purportedly for tax evasion.
Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander De Croo called "on the Congolese government to drop the monthly tax of more than 40,000 euros ($48,000) that Panzi hospital has to pay," according to a statement from the government in Brussels, the former colonial power in what was once called the Belgian Congo.
"The tax indeed threatens the care provided to rape victims," he added.
De Croo, who also heads the ministry for development cooperation, which has provided equipment to the institution, said he is "worried about Panzi hospital's survival" after its accounts were seized and management could no longer pay the wages of 500 medical staff.
Mukwege, who in November received the European Parliament's Sakharov rights prize for his work, told AFP by phone from Bukavu that the government action was "unjustified" because Panzi hospital has a special status and its personnel are taxed "at the source by the finance ministry".
For the past 15 years the Panzi hospital has specialised in treating victims, mostly women, of violent sexual assault in the country's volatile eastern region, where the army has been fighting rival militia groups.
The militants vying for control of the region's mineral wealth often use mass rape to terrorise the local population.
"If the war is officially over today, eastern Congo continues to be the theatre of armed conflicts where rape is used as a weapon," De Croo said.