Multiple armed groups are active in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, fueling an ongoing crisis of sexual violence.
A large crowd gathered around the open sides of the makeshift courtroom in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) village of Kamanyola in early March to watch the culmination of a trial against 15 military officers for the rape of minors.
They watched in silence, some reaching to get a better look, as a soldier took off the epaulettes of a colonel who had just been dishonorably discharged from the army by a judge and sentenced to seven years in prison for the latest rape of a local 14-year-old girl. September.
“The fact that a very senior officer has been convicted is a very eloquent message that no one is above the law,” said Judge Innocent Mayembe, who found 12 of the soldiers guilty.
The trial, from February 27 to March 9, by a mobile military court provided a rare opportunity for justice for rape in the conflict-ravaged eastern DRC, where it is estimated that half of women have experienced sexual violence in a or other form.
During the trial, which took place in an open-air wooden structure, several victims and a victim’s father testified in specially designed hoods that covered their faces – an indication of the fear of stigma that prevents many from coming forward. come.
“I don’t have any friends anymore,” said one victim.
Holding the hearings in the local community helps “show people that they need to speak up on sexual assault cases,” said lawyer Armand Muhima, whose organization funded the trial. “The goal… is to educate the people so that they know that the law is for everyone.”
Muhima works for the Panzi Foundation, an organization founded by Nobel Prize-winning gynecologist Denis Mukwege, which campaigns for the hundreds of thousands of women who have been raped in eastern DRC since the region fell into conflict in the 1990s.
The Second Congo War, which claimed millions of lives, formally ended in 2002, but Congo’s armed forces continue to battle multiple armed groups in eastern regions, fueling the long-running crisis of sexual violence.
In a 2014 report on the fight against impunity for such crimes, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in Congo (UNJHRO) said some progress had been made.
But “most cases of sexual assault are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are even reported,” it says.
In the same year, the government launched an action plan to combat sexual violence by members of the military, with hundreds of commanders pledging to report cases.
According to UNJHRO, which supported 12 investigations by military courts and seven mobile courts, 314 people in the DRC, including 71 soldiers and 143 members of armed groups, were convicted of crimes related to human rights violations and abuses, such as sexual violence, in 2022 hearings.
The mobile courts, mostly funded by foreign donors, have been operating in the DRC for more than a decade, bringing judges, prosecutors and lawyers to remote villages to show local communities that crimes committed far from urban centers do not occur outside the boundaries of the city. reach of the law.
Even when cases are opened, the legal process can be slow.
NGO Congolese Rule of Law Association issued a statement to authorities on Monday asking why it had taken more than a year to plan a trial for defendants in connection with the rape of more than 100 women and girls in a high-profile 2016 case .
The father of a victim at the Kamanyola trial said he just wanted justice for his daughter.
“I need to see this case brought to an end in accordance with the law. I’m not asking for anything (other),” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.