Human Rights Watch has issued a powerful report on a rape trial conducted by a military court in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here is the press release. From the report's summary:
In November 2012, Congolese army soldiers retreated from the advancing M23 rebel group that had taken the strategic city of Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They redeployed in Minova, a market town on the shores of Lake Kivu. En route and in Minova and surrounding communities, the soldiers engaged in a 10-day frenzy of destruction: looting homes, razing shops and shelters in camps for displaced people, and raping at least 76 women and girls.
The violence from November 20 to November 30 prompted a public outcry in Congo and beyond. Congolese authorities, who had announced a “zero tolerance” policy toward serious crimes—including sexual violence—now faced intense international pressure to bring the perpetrators to justice.
One year later, in December 2013, 14 officers and 25 rank-and-file soldiers of the Congolese army were put on trial in Goma, the capital of North Kivu province, on various charges, including the war crimes of rape and pillage, rape as an ordinary crime, and various military offenses. In more than 40 days of hearings over five months, close to 75 of the 1,016 people who joined the case as victim participants gave testimony, in addition to the defendants and other witnesses. The court held 10 days of hearings in Minova, thus bringing justice closer to those affected by the crimes.
International and national non-governmental organizations viewed the Minova trial as a test case for the Congolese justice system and its ability to hold perpetrators of grave human rights abuses to account. Many hoped it would demonstrate a real commitment by Congolese authorities, including the military, to ensure that justice would be served for grave international crimes.
The trial verdict, rendered by a local military court in Goma on May 5, 2014, quashed these hopes. Of the 39 accused, only two of the low-ranking soldiers were convicted of one individual rape each. The high-level commanders with overall responsibility for the troops in Minova were never charged; those lower-ranking officers who were charged were all acquitted. A number of soldiers were convicted of the war crime of pillage, despite an obvious lack of evidence against them.
Based on more than 65 interviews and a review of court documents, this report offers insight into the inner workings of the Congolese military justice system in the Minova case. It provides a detailed analysis of the investigation and trial—examining what went right and what did not.
Fair and impartial justice does not mean securing convictions at all cost. It is important that the military court acquitted those against whom it did not find sufficient evidence of wrongdoing. Yet, the Minova investigation and trial failed to establish what exactly happened in Minova, to identify those who were responsible for the crimes, and to bring justice to the victims.
Building on the Minova trial as an example, the report identifies reforms to the national justice system that are needed to strengthen the fight against impunity for international crimes in Congo. These include strengthening the legislative framework; increasing the specialized expertise of the justice system to handle atrocity crimes, including through the creation of a specialized investigation cell; and bolstering the independence of both the civilian and military justice systems. The government’s proposal to establish an internationalized justice mechanism within national courts remains of critical importance.
The Congolese government has legal obligations under international law to ensure that those responsible for sexual violence and other grave international crimes such as murder, pillage, torture, and the use of child soldiers are investigated and prosecuted in fair and credible trials.
There has been some progress in Congo over the past 10 years, with about 30 cases involving war crimes and crimes against humanity charges tried before local military courts. However, the vast majority of atrocities committed in Congo by members of armed groups and national armed forces during the fighting over the past two decades remain unpunished.