A Congolese military court’s conviction of the militia leader Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka and two co-accused for serious abuses is a significant step in the fight against impunity in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
On November 23, 2020, a military court in Goma, North Kivu province, found Sheka guilty of seven counts of war crimes committed by his militia, the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC), in Walikale and Masisi territories in 2010 and between 2012 and 2014. The charges included mass rape and sexual slavery, murder, pillage, and recruitment of child soldiers. While Sheka’s sentence of life in prison delivers a measure of justice for his many victims, the trial revealed serious shortcomings, including the defendants’ lack of the right to appeal the verdict, and the protection of victims and witnesses.
“Sheka’s conviction and life sentence is an important step in the fight against impunity in Congo and a testament to the work of survivors and activists who took great personal risks in the pursuit of justice,” said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “At a time when the Congolese government is considering plans for transitional justice, it should draw lessons – both successes and flaws – from this protracted investigation and judicial process.”
The court also sentenced an NDC fighter, Jean Claude Lukambo, alias “Kamutoto,” to 15 years in prison for insurrection and murder. Séraphin Nzitonda, alias “Lionceau,” a former leader of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR) and an ally of Sheka’s NDC, was found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. Sheka’s nurse, Jean Ndoole Batechi, was acquitted. Four other co-accused remain at large.
Sheka and the co-accused were tried by a military “operational court,” which does not allow for the right to appeal a conviction and sentence to a higher tribunal, contrary to Congo’s constitution and in violation of international human rights law. In keeping with fair trial requirements, the Congolese government should ensure a right to appeal before all civilian and military criminal courts in Congo.
Human Rights Watch worked with two local human rights defenders to monitor the trial since it began in November 2018, and interviewed 13 survivors of abuses, legal counsel, judicial officers, United Nations officials, and members of domestic and international nongovernmental organizations. Human Rights Watch has not yet obtained a copy of the judgment but attended the November 23 hearing during which the verdict was announced.
During the trial, the panel of five judges examined allegations that Sheka’s fighters, along with two other armed groups, raped more than 300 women and dozens of girls as well as at least 23 men and 9 boys in 13 villages on the road from Kibua to Mpofi between July 30 and August 2, 2010. The trial also covered attacks between 2012 and 2014 during which NDC fighters killed, looted villages, burned houses, and recruited child soldiers.
Investigators faced tremendous difficulties in locating survivors as the investigators operated in an active conflict zone over several years. Many victims identified in the early stages of the investigations subsequently had to relocate due to ongoing insecurity and did not participate in the trial as a result. Important evidence such as medical certificates that confirm instances of rape disappeared or were damaged by armed groups.
Despite the support from international partners, shortcomings in the protection of victims and witnesses raised serious concerns, Human Rights Watch said. Investigators interviewed more than 290 victims ahead of the trial but only 11 appeared in court, including six former child soldiers and two survivors of mass rape. Many were simply unable to travel due to fears of reprisals, intimidation, threats, and ongoing insecurity. Several victims who were supposed to only stay a few days in Goma to testify ended up remaining for months as hearings were repeatedly postponed, increasing security risks.
A former NDC child soldier from the town of Pinga in Walikale who travelled to Goma in 2019 to testify told Human Rights Watch that fighters loyal to Sheka intimidated his family in Walikale: “The threat came after I had been away [from Pinga] for a long time, because everyone knew why I was gone…. [The fighters] said that anyone who went to Goma and lied against Sheka [at the trial] would have to explain themselves.” He said that Sheka himself called him repeatedly when he was waiting to testify in Goma and threatened to have him killed. The witness’s father fled Pinga while the former child soldier delayed his return home, forcing him to miss school for the rest of the year.
He said that on his return to Pinga, 10 fighters came to his house, tied him up, and took him to their camp: “They told me that I was guilty of treason against the [NDC] movement. They hit me with sticks until my clothes were torn.” He said he was held one week in the open, hands tied, and beaten daily. He was eventually released when his family paid a US$400 ransom.
Local activists who identified victims and witnesses and facilitated their travel to Goma were also threatened. One activist said that Sheka and his collaborators had repeatedly threatened him both in person and by text message. He said that they told him to stop working on the case or he “would risk his life.”
Congolese authorities should work with international partners to strengthen efforts to protect victims and witnesses in grave crimes cases.
Several judicial officials were rotated since the beginning of the investigations, and four successive prosecutors were involved in the proceedings. The trial then lasted nearly two years because of the many logistical challenges, delay tactics by the defense, and the slow pace of hearings. Between March and June, hearings were suspended due to government restrictions to tackle the spread of Covid-19.
The judges did not examine credible information revealing the responsibility of high-ranking government and military officials in abuses committed by Sheka’s forces. Human Rights Watch previously found that Congolese army officers and Rwandan officials provided financial and logistical support for Sheka’s operations at various times between 2009 and 2014. Judicial authorities should investigate the responsibility of senior army officials and politicians in their support for the NDC and bring appropriate prosecutions, Human Rights Watch said.
The court awarded compensation ranging from the equivalent of US$4,000 to US$12,000 to the 11 victims who participated in the trial. These awards will have to be paid by Sheka and his co-accused. While Congolese courts have often awarded reparations to victims of sexual violence and other serious crimes, these reparations have rarely – if ever – been paid.
The involvement of Congolese government and military officials in abuses by Sheka’s forces would also be the basis for direct reparations by the government to victims. The government should design a sustainable and effective reparation system for serious international crimes and ensure reparations to all of Sheka’s victims, Human Rights Watch said.
“Congolese courts are delivering an increasing number of important verdicts, but efforts for domestic accountability should be dramatically strengthened, with reforms and international support, to end decades of impunity for mass atrocities in Congo,” Fessy said.