First trial in Kasai for crimes of the Kamuina Nsapu rebellion

For the first time in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Kasai province, a former militia leader was on October 30 convicted of war crimes by Congolese military justice. This took place in one of the villages set on fire in 2017 during the conflict between the Kamuina Nsapu militias and the Congolese army.

First trial in Kasai for crimes of the Kamuina Nsapu rebellionThe first war crimes trial in the Congolese province of Kasai was held in the village of Mayi Munene. © Google Maps
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True to form, Congolese military justice conducted this trial in record time. The trial opened on October 25 at the site of the alleged events in the village of Mayi Munene, some 30 kilometres from the provincial capital Tshikapa, and ended on Saturday, October 30.

The case concerns actions of a militia that set fire to several villages in the region, particularly those of Mayi Munene and Lusuku, in 2017. Summary executions by decapitation, looting and burning houses: these are the abuses for which Tshimputu Mandefu and Annie Ntumba were prosecuted. According to the prosecution, Tshimputu Mandefu was a village chief and militia leader, while his wife Annie Ntumba was guardian of the militia’s fetishes. They were charged with war crimes of murder and participation in an insurrectionary movement.

Mandefu was found guilty on all charges and was sentenced to death. Ntumba was found guilty only of participation in an insurrectional movement. The court found a number of mitigating circumstances in her case, and she was sentenced to only four years in prison. Of the 60 or so victims who filed civil suits, only 18 were recognized as such by the court. Chief Tshimputu was ordered to pay them a collective sum of 80,000 US dollars.

“Before the trial, victims felt forgotten”

“The victims welcomed this judgment with real enthusiasm, there was applause in the villages,” said Isaac Tambwe, President of the Bar of Tshikapa, who coordinated the team of civil party lawyers. “This judgment is a first in Kasai. There are other cases being prepared. We have identified about ten priority cases. We have opted for hearings at the scene of the events, so criminals understand that impunity can no longer be tolerated.” Tambwe doubts that the convict Tshimputu has the means to pay the amount ordered by the judges, but nevertheless expressed satisfaction. “Before the trial, the victims felt they had been forgotten. Now justice has been done.”

Defence lawyer François Ngalamulume only half believes this. He says he is satisfied for Annie Ntumba, because she was released after the judgment, having already spent the four years of her sentence in pre-trial detention. “However, it should be noted that there was no evidence of fetishism at the trial. We did not see these fetishes. What colour are they? What size are they? It’s all in people’s imagination,” he said in a telephone interview. As for his client Tshimputu, “the court went too far, the sentence is too severe,” he says. “No witness testified that he saw Tshimputu commit these crimes. Moreover, our client was never a village chief.” He asked the court go to the scene, to the village, to confirm or deny this, but the judges refused. The lawyer is therefore appealing.

Kamuina Nsapu, a nebulous group of militias

While at least one trial for serious crimes committed during the so-called Kamuina Nsapu conflict has been held in the neighbouring province of Kasai Central, this is the first to be held in Kasai province. The Kamuina Nsapu movement was not a single homogeneous group but a nebulous collection of militias in the different territories and provinces of Kasai, all of which claimed to be Kamuina Nsapu but were not necessarily organizationally and hierarchically linked. 

The origin of this insurgency dates back to August 22, 2016, when Jean-Pierre Mpandi, the “Kamuina Nsapu” or leader of the Bajila Kasanga clan in Kasai Central province, was shot and killed during an operation by the national security forces. To avenge their leader, militiamen now known as “Kamuina Nsapu” burned down administrative buildings, attacked and killed soldiers, police and other central government officials. The violence spread, as many young people from other ethnic groups and other neighbouring regions joined the rebellion. Tshimputu and his wife thus belonged to a militia created locally in the context of this insurrection.

The conflict quickly took on an inter-ethnic connotation. In their reprisals, the defence and security forces relied on another militia, the Bana Mura, composed of members of the Tchokwe, Pende and Tetela ethnic groups. Clashes between Kamuina Nsapu militiamen and security forces and Bana Mura militias left more than 3,000 people dead and 1.4 million displaced between 2016 and 2017, according to the United Nations.

What about army responsibility?

But what about the prosecution of crimes committed by the Congolese military during the conflict in Kasai? “The files are being prepared. Justice is doing its job and no criminal, whatever his rank, will be spared,” says Tambwe optimistically.

“There are other investigations underway, both in Kasai province and Central Kasai province, for crimes committed in the Kamuina Nsapu conflict. These investigations target militiamen and elements of the Congolese security forces,” says Daniele Perissi of the Swiss NGO TRIAL International, which has already been involved in trials in eastern DRC and has just begun work in the Kasai. “We hope that these investigations will be successful and that other trials will be held in the coming months and years.”

Marie-Thérèse Keita-Bocoum, member of a UN team of international experts on the situation in Kasai, recommended at a press conference in Geneva on October 6 that a transitional justice mechanism be set up. She said this should “necessarily include criminal justice” but “also other non-judicial mechanisms that will make it possible to repair the harm done to the victims” and “will also allow for collective reparation”. For the moment, the work rests mainly on the shoulders of the military justice system, as is already the case in the east of the country, in the Kivu regions.