It was a historic verdict pronounced on Wednesday December 13 by a military court in South Kivu, eastern DR Congo, in the trial of some 20 members of the Army of Jesus militia (Jeshi la Yesu in Swahili) accused of rape and murder. Local politician Frédéric Batumike, head of this militia, and 11 of his co-accused were sentenced to life in jail. Two others were sentenced to one year, while six were acquitted. Their trial concerned the rape of some 40 children aged 8 months to 12 years in Kavumu, South Kivu, between 2013 and 2016.
The trial lasted 17 days, during which the prosecution and civil parties brought evidence in a tireless attempt to convince the three military judges that these were “widespread and systematic” acts constituting crimes against humanity. This is a rare victory against impunity in this part of the DRC where crime is part of daily life and rape has often become commonplace. The civil parties therefore have reason to be pleased. “We are satisfied with the work of the court,” said Charles Cubaka Cicura, spokesman for the civil parties’ lawyers. “Even if the material reparations seem minimal, we are pleased to see these criminals convicted and sent to prison to serve their sentences. Even a provincial lawmaker has been convicted, which is a strong signal for the fight against impunity in the DRC.”
During the 17 days of hearings, the civil parties fought hard against the accused, who denied all the allegations against them and rejected the testimonies. Provincial lawmaker Fréderic Batumike, whose immunity was lifted to allow the trial, went further, trying several times to destabilize the court by accusing two of the judges of bias. But his demands that the two judges be recused were finally thrown out.
Innovative investigation methods
The investigation phase was just as delicate if not more so for the prosecution and civil parties, given the tender age of the victims, some of whom were still being breastfed. Added to that was the fact that the accused abducted girls while their parents and neighbours were asleep. The Congolese authorities and civil parties therefore had to rely on scientific expertise in order to implicate the militia members. It was mainly the American NGO Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the local Panzi hospital of renowned Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege (“the man who repairs women”) that gathered the medico-legal documentation on the physical and psychological injuries inflicted on the survivors. These were innovative investigation techniques which allowed the crimes to be linked to the militia.
Special protection for victims
The lawyers and civil parties also requested and obtained from the court certain measures to protect the victims, such as use of codenames for victims and witnesses, use of screens to protect the identities of civil parties and witnesses and voice scrambling during court testimonies of witnesses and civil parties. “The trial was conducted in a very professional and almost unprecedented way in the DRC with regard to protecting the identity of some witnesses to safeguard their security and avoid re-traumatizing little girls who were victim of these abominable crimes,” says Susannah Sirkin of Physicians for Human Rights. “In particular, the court kept the welfare of victims at the heart of its work, it worked in collaboration with experts, members of civil society, NGOs and judicial authorities, gathered the evidence in a rigorous and scientific way.” She called on other Congolese courts to take inspiration from this to deliver justice to the many victims of violence.
Daniele Perissi, who heads the DRC programme of Swiss NGO Trial international, stresses how important it is that a political personality and militia leader has been convicted. “This is the first time in the DRC that a sitting politician has been found guilty as a hierarchical superior of crimes committed both by himself and the militia he controlled and funded.”
But lawyers for provincial lawmaker Fréderic Batumike say this was a “political trial” and a “witch hunt against an opponent of the South Kivu government”. They have five days to give notice whether or not they will appeal. If they do not do so within the five days, this judgment will be final.