BARAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - A military court in Congo convicted nine soldiers on Monday of the mass rape of more than 50 women in the country’s troubled east and imposed prison sentences of up to 20 years.
The attacks happened on New Year’s Day in the town of Fizi, in the mineral-rich but unstable province of South Kivu, where abuses are rife amid clashes between the army, local and foreign rebels and militia fighters.
The case was seen as a test of the readiness of Congo’s judicial system to hold gunmen accountable for their acts.
Commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Kibibi Mutware, a former rebel, was thrown out of the army and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the attacks. Eight of his men were also dismissed and got sentences from between 10 and 20 years, according to a Reuters witness in the courtroom.
“He did not prevent his soldiers from carrying out these acts so in consideration of the treaty of Rome and the Congolese military penal code, Colonel Kibibi and all the other soldiers have committed crimes against humanity by rape, by terrorism and by inhuman acts,” senior judge Colonel Freddy Mukendi said.
Mukendi said “overall responsibility” lay with the government for recruiting people who were “untrained and uneducated,” and he said the victims should receive up to $10,000 in compensation each from the authorities.
One soldier was acquitted and another, who is 16, will be tried in a juvenile court.
The trial took place in the nearby town of Baraka and lasted more than ten days.
It was seen as a litmus test of official preparedness to end a culture of impunity in Congo, where violence simmers eight years after the last war officially ended and in the approach to a presidential election due later this year.
Therese Kulungu, the lawyer who represented the victims, said the case was an important step.
“The untouchable has been touched,” she said, although she added that the local population had been hoping Kibibi would be handed a death sentence.
The United Nations has called Congo the rape capital of the world; mass rapes are frequent and armed men, often from government units, are seldom held accountable.
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg in Kinshasa; writing by David Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich