The Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is coveted by various militias operating in the South Kivu region of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). They include the militia of Chance Mihonya, which moved into this protected natural area in 2019. Mihonya, a deserter from the Congolese army, claimed he wanted to defend the right of pygmies to live on their ancestral lands in the KBNP. But "his real motives soon emerged: exploitation of the protected resources of Kahuzi-Biega, with a view to enriching himself," says TRIAL International, a non-governmental organization engaged in fighting international crimes, which works with many Congolese victims. "In concrete terms, Mihonya and his men cut down trees to sell wood and charcoal, and dug mines to extract minerals from the ground. With the money from these sales, he bought weapons for his militia," which held sway in the area, adds the NGO, echoing the accusations of the military justice prosecutor.
In May 2020, Mihonya, who called himself a colonel, was finally arrested in a joint operation by the Park guards and the Congolese army.
International crimes and a co-accused
The trial opened the following November without charges of international crimes. But at the request of the civil parties, the proceedings were suspended to allow the prosecutor to conduct further investigation. The prosecutor returned in April 2021 with an indictment implicating not only Chance Mihonya but also Major Benjamin Mazambi Bozy. Mihonya, 46, is now charged with crimes against humanity (deprivation of liberty, murder, other inhumane acts, rape), war crimes (enlisting and using children under 18 in his armed group, desertion), as well as environmental crimes (damaging and destroying protected areas, building in protected areas). Mazambi Bozy, 49, was also accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, for having, according to the prosecution, supplied ammunition and weapons to Mihonya’s militia between 2019 and 2020.
The new trial opened on September 13 at the scene of the events in Katana, about 50 kilometres north of Bukavu, the regional capital of South Kivu. Hundreds of children, women and men attended the six days of hearings, sometimes until nightfall. Proceedings were held outdoors, except when the weather didn’t allow this or when closed sessions were necessary, for example to hear rape victims.
No luck for Chance
The judgment came on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 21, with members of Mihonya’s family present. His parents named him "Chance" (meaning luck in French) in the hope it would keep bad luck away from him, but that apparently failed now. The militia leader was found guilty on all counts against him. For each of the war crimes and crimes against humanity, the military judges gave him life imprisonment, except for the "crime of enlisting and using child soldiers", for which he got 20 years. For environmental crimes, he received three years for violating a nature reserve and 12 months for building a house and a hangar in the PNKB.
The court thus imposed the heaviest sentence: life imprisonment. Mihonya was also ordered to pay 50,000 US dollars to the KBNP for the various damages suffered. The 87 other civil parties - including 14 women who were raped and 8 children under the age of 18 - were not forgotten. The convict will have to pay each of them an amount varying between 3,000 and 10,000 dollars, depending on the seriousness of the harm -- "jointly and severally with the Congolese State", which was held to be civilly liable.
No extenuating circumstances were retained, even though Mihonya admitted certain facts in the indictment.
Defence to appeal
On the other hand for Major Mazambi it was the end of the nightmare. He was acquitted for lack of evidence. Some of his superiors told the court they had never noticed any war materiel missing from their stock, whereas Mihonya had stated during the investigation that the major sold him weapons from his unit.
"Justice has been served. Chance did not show any willingness to repent, he did not express remorse. On the contrary, he boasted as if it was his right to commit these crimes," said David Bugamba, one of the lawyers for the civil parties. As for the acquittal of the second defendant, Bugamba believes that "the judge did his job", conceding that the evidence against him was not solid.
"We weren’t expecting an acquittal for Chance Mihonya, but we did expect a lighter sentence," said his lawyer, Paul Bushabu Mabosho. He announced that he would appeal, saying the criteria were not met to prosecute for international crimes. "He operated in an isolated, sporadic manner. We cannot talk about crimes against humanity and war crimes. We argued this, but the court preferred to follow the prosecutor," said the lawyer, before expressing "joy" at the acquittal of Mazambi.
A victory for the rights of nature
"We welcome this conviction of Chance Mihonya for environmental crimes. Other criminals linked to this mafia network will be deterred, seeing that things have changed,” said Josué Aruna Sefu, a coordinator for civil society environmentalists in South Kivu. “We urge the justice system to continue tracking down all environmental criminals so they can be held accountable like Chance. These environmental crimes feed the armed groups in the forests and protected areas like Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Illegal mining in protected areas allows them to procure weapons, sowing panic and desolation in local communities."
Environmental lawyer Olivier Ndoole from North Kivu, another part of eastern DRC where armed groups plunder natural resources and commit crimes against the civilian population, also hails "a victory for the rights of nature”. He says trafficking of wood, ivory and illegal fishing in the Virunga National Park in North Kivu illustrates "the link between these environmental crimes and the deaths, extra-judicial summary executions and destabilization of the Republic”. But he says the work to be done is immense. "To achieve peace and stability in the DRC, we must stop the ecological haemorrhage. The International Criminal Court, the Security Council and other international bodies must now take seriously the issue of environmental crimes by armed groups in eastern DRC. We need to block the financial channels of these armed groups.”
"This is one of the harshest sentences ever handed down by military justice on former soldiers in eastern DRC,” commented a jurist who followed the trial. “But it couldn’t have been any other way, since these were deemed international crimes. As for the pygmy community that [Mihonya] claimed to defend, it seems they have distanced themselves from him."