KAMANYOLA, Democratic Republic of Congo, March 17 (Reuters) – A large crowd gathered around the open sides of the makeshift courtroom in the eastern Congolese village of Kamanyola in early March to watch the culmination of a trial of 15 military officers for the rape of minors.
They watched in silence, some straining to get a better look as a soldier removed the epaulets from a colonel a judge had just ordered dishonorably discharged from the army and sentenced to seven years in prison for serving a 14th stint -year-old local girl had been raped September.
“The fact that a very senior officer was convicted is a very telling message that nobody is above the law,” said Judge Innocent Mayembe, who found 12 of the soldiers guilty.
The trial before a mobile military court from February 27 to March 9 offered a rare chance for justice for rapes in the conflict-affected eastern DRC, where an estimated 40% of women have experienced some form of sexual violence, according to a 2010 report have experienced study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
During the trial, which took place in an open-air wooden structure, several victims and one victim’s father gave their statements in specially designed hoods that covered their faces – an indicator of the fear of stigma that discourages many from coming forward .
“I don’t have any friends anymore,” said one of the victims.
Holding the hearings in the local community helps “show people the need to speak out about sexual violence cases,” said attorney Armand Muhima, whose organization funded the process. “The goal…is to educate people, so they know the law is for everyone.”
Muhima works for the Panzi Foundation, an organization founded by Nobel Prize-winning gynecologist Denis Mukwege, which works to help hundreds of thousands of women who have been raped in eastern Congo since the region fell into conflict in the 1990s got.
The Second Congo War, which claimed millions of lives, officially ended in 2002, but Congolese forces are still battling numerous armed groups in the eastern regions, fueling the long-running sexual violence crisis.
In a 2014 report on fighting impunity for such crimes, the UN’s Joint Human Rights Office in Congo (UNJHRO) said some progress had been made.
But “most cases of sexual violence are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are even reported,” it said.
In the same year, the government launched an action plan to combat sexual violence by members of the military, under which hundreds of commanders pledged to report cases.
In 2022, 314 people in Congo, including 71 soldiers and 143 members of armed groups, were convicted of crimes related to human rights abuses and abuses such as sexual violence, according to UNJHRO, which supported 12 investigations by military courts and seven mobile court hearings.
The mobile courts, funded largely by foreign donors, have been operating in Congo for over a decade, bringing judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to remote villages to show local communities that crimes committed far from urban centers are not beyond the reach of the law.
Even when cases are opened, the court process can be lengthy.
On Monday, the NGO, the Congolese Rule of Law Society, asked authorities in a statement why it had taken over a year to set a trial for defendants linked to the rape of over 100 women and girls in a high-profile 2016 case .
The father of one victim in the Kamanyola trial said he only wanted justice for his daughter.
“I need to see this case ended according to the law. I’m not asking for anything (other),” he said on condition of anonymity.
Additional reporting by Sonia Rolley Writing by Alessandra Prentice, Editing by Alexandra Hudson
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