On around May 5, 2012, forces of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group that has been active in eastern DRC for more than 20 years, attacked the village of Lumenje, killing 14 people and torching buildings including houses and a primary school. Nine days later they attacked Kamananga, where some 30 people were murdered, houses were looted and burned. Rafiki Ndayambaje Gilbert and Adolphe Kizito Nizeyimana, who say they are major and colonel respectively in the FDLR, were tried for these crimes by a military tribunal in hearings lasting from August 23 to September 6 in Kalehe, a site near the scene of the crimes between Bukavu and Goma.
The verdict was pronounced on September 21 in Bukavu. The two militia leaders were found guilty of murder and torture as crimes against humanity, looting and burning as war crimes. They were sentenced to life in prison and also ordered to pay considerable sums of money to dozens of victims who were civil parties in this case: 25,000 US dollars to each victim of murder, 15,000 for torture, 10,000 for looting and 5,000 for burning.
But the unprecedented thing about this trial is that for the first time in a Congolese court trying mass crimes audiovisual evidence was presented, notably photos and videos taken with the help of a secure application called "Eyewitness to Atrocities". "This could create an important precedent in the ways and means of gathering and documenting evidence in the DRC,” says Daniele Perissi, head of the DRC programme of Swiss NGO TRIAL International, one of the NGOs that supported victims in this trial. “Because photos and videos, especially if they are gathered in a professional way through secure applications, are sometimes the only way for judges to have virtual access to the scene of the crime, especially when the crimes were committed far from where the court is sitting.”
Responsibility of the Congolese State
While the victims hail the conviction of their torturers, they are however not fully satisfied. During their arguments, the civil parties requested that the perpetrators and the Congolese State be ordered to pay compensation to victims. They argued that the State had failed in its duty to protect civilians and was therefore civilly responsible. However, this argument was rejected by the judges. “What disturbs us is that the Congolese State has not been sanctioned, whereas it should be, because the authorities were aware of the situation and still allowed it to happen,” Charles Cubaka Cicura, spokesman for the Collective of Civil Parties’ Lawyers, told JusticeInfo. “It is unacceptable that civilians were killed when it is a constitutional obligation of the State to guarantee the security of people and their property. Even more serious is that, according to some indiscretions by the convicts, at one time the Congolese State actually supplied them with arms and food. It is therefore unjust that the responsibility of the State be ignored.”
The reparations challenge
The parties can still appeal. But there is also the thorny problem of compensating the victims. Congolese courts regularly order perpetrators to pay compensation to their victims, but such orders are no guarantee that reparations will actually be paid. The cost of the legal procedures is often way beyond the means of victims, who are mostly poor, and they also face the problem of convicts who cannot pay.
Daniele Perissi urges the Congolese State to provide more resources to the judicial system for reparations to victims. “Reparations are a right, not a privilege,” he told JusticeInfo. “The Congolese State needs to greatly improve its practices in this domain, because it unfortunately remains impossible to obtain compensation from the State in cases of mass crimes, even if there has been a final judgment ordering State compensation to victims.”