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WOMEN’S DAY: DRC Mobile Court a Sign of Hope

BUKAVU, DR Congo, Mar 7 2011 (IPS) - Eleven soldiers found culpable in the rape of more than 50 women in the Congolese town of Fizi Centre in January, have begun serving lengthy sentences in the provincial capital, Bukavu. Their speedy trial and sentencing by a mobile court is a welcome sign of a new commitment to ending impunity for sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Poster in Goma, eastern DRC, warning of the penalties for rape. Credit:  Roberto de Vido/IRIN

Poster in Goma, eastern DRC, warning of the penalties for rape. Credit: Roberto de Vido/IRIN

On the night of Jan. 1-2, a group of soldiers carried out a raid against the town of Fizi, 240 kilometres southwest of Bukavu, in retaliation for the killing of a soldier earlier. More than 50 women were raped, hundreds of people were injured.

But where tens of thousands of serious crimes are routinely left unaddressed in a country whose justice system has long ago been overwhelmed by years of civil war, the perpetrators were swiftly apprehended and investigations and a trial were concluded within two months.

This is thanks to a mobile gender justice court, created through the joint efforts of the Rule of Law Initiative of the American Bar Association and the Open Society’s Justice Initiative. According to Dr Kelly Askin, senior legal officer for International Justice in the Open Society Justice Initiative, the court handled 186 cases in 2010 – 115 of them dealing with rape – in remote areas of South Kivu where formal justice has been all but non-existent.

More work ahead

Even as the verdict was delivered, international medical charity Médécins sans Frontières warned that large-scale attacks on civilians are continuing in the Fizi region. MSF said it had treated more than 50 survivors of assaults near the villages of Misisi/Milimba on Feb. 12 and 13, and Bwala/Ibindi on Feb. 18-19.

According to survivors, the women, men and children were beaten and raped by men who appeared to be part of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (known by its French acronym FDLR), a group linked to the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

MSF says it has treated 200 people for sexual violence in the Fizi region since the start of the year, the highest total since it started working here in 2004.

For the Fizi case, a military court sat in an open-air courtroom in the nearby town of Baraka for ten days. Proceedings were daily witnessed by hundreds of villagers. Sentences ranging between 10 and 20 years were handed down on Feb. 21 against nine of the accused. One man was acquitted, and the eleventh – a minor – was referred to a juvenile court by the court.

The convicted men will serve their sentences in the central prison in Bukavu, built during the colonial era. “Constructed to hold 300 inmates, this penal institution today houses more than 1,100,” says Dercy Muley, the executive secretary of the Network of Human Rights Association of South Kivu. The provincial justice minister, Sadock Biganza, told IPS that 40 percent of those inmates are soldiers.

The governor of South Kivu province, Marcellin Cishambo, was present for the sentencing. Interviewed by IPS, the governor called for a return to objective criteria for recruitment into the army, deploring the fact that the DRC had privileged the integration of militiamen from the former armed groups into the national army in the name of peace.

Cishambo confirmed the will of his administration to put an end to impunity and rape. “”It’s not the first time that the Congolese government has organised a trial to judge the authors of sexual violence,” he said. In October 2010, a military court sentenced 13 members of the Congolese army, the FARDC, in the Walungu area.

Muley congratulated the court for the speed with which it reached a verdict in Fizi. “We are now waiting for a repeat performance with the trials regarding the assassination of human rights defenders and journalists in Bukavu.”

Lieutenant Colonl Vianney Kazarama, army spokesperson for Operation Amani Leo (the military campaign against rebel groups with which the convicted soldiers were serving) in South Kivu, also welcomed the verdict. “This is an example that will spread. A policy of zero tolerance will be applied to all perpetrators.”   Writing in the International Justice Tribune, Open Society’s Askin said the trial demonstrates that cooperation between local government and justice systems, the U.N., NGOs and donors, prosecution of such crimes is possible even in a region racked by insecurity.

“With the ICC going after the highest level accused often out of reach of domestic jurisdictions – and the local courts, including mobile courts, going after lower level suspects – accountability can become the norm, and impunity the exception.” says Askin.

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