November 7, 2015
KASENYI, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO – It is 9 a.m., and Col. Jean Pierre Tchiteya, the first president of the Military Garrison Court of Ituri announces the start of a court hearing in Kasenyi, a port town in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The mobile court is set up at the doorstep of the offices of the town’s chief. Between 15 and 20 defendants – military officers, police officers and civilians – sit before a panel of four judges. While the judges sit under a tent, a crowd of onlookers keenly follows the court’s proceedings from under a tree.
Residents of villages in the region have come to witness, for the first time in Kasenyi, the trial of police officers and soldiers accused of committing rape and other atrocities in the district.
Victims and witnesses are seated on one side, waiting to testify.
Among the victims is Alice, a 15-year-old girl. Alice was raped by two soldiers and a police officer in July 2014 in Tchomya village, 7 kilometers (4.35 miles) from Kasenyi. Global Press Journal is not using Alice’s last name, to protect her identity.
Alice, who asked that her last name not be used, had gone to get water from a river about a kilometer from her home around 6 p.m. when the three men called her. Since she knew them, she obediently walked to them.
The men grabbed her and pushed her into a bush where nobody could see them. They then raped her in turns.
“As one of them raped me, the other one closed my mouth so I could not scream and the third one guarded the scene. They alternated roles,” she says.
The men warned her against reporting the incident and left. Limping and bleeding, Alice walked back home, and her family took her to a hospital. She was hospitalized for three months and treated for syphilis and other infections.
Alice’s father reported the incident to the village chief. But the nearest court was in Bunia town, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) away, so getting justice was difficult. It wasn’t until the Military Garrison Court of Ituri held this mobile court session in Kasenyi for more than a week in late July and early August that Alice’s assailants were tried.
Sexual violence is pervasive in DRC. A 2011 study revealed that up to 1.8 million women reported having been raped at least once in their lifetime. But fear of reprisals, the cost of pursuing a case and difficulties in accessing courts deter victims from seeking justice.
Courts are usually based in provincial capitals, making justice inaccessible for rural communities. A mobile military court has for the first time brought justice closer to victims of sexual violence in Kasenyi. Locals say the court will bring down crime and end impunity.
More than 10 years after the end of DRC’s civil war, fighting continues among rival communities, militia groups and government forces in the eastern part of the country. The conflict has been marked by extreme sexual violence. Members of rebel groups, policemen and officers of the DRC Armed Forces (FARDC) rape women and girls and sometimes hold them as sex slaves.
The warring groups use rape as a weapon of war, to punish civilians belonging to a particular tribe or those perceived to support the enemy, according to Human Rights Watch.
In Kasenyi and neighboring villages, some police officers, soldiers and members of the Front for Patriotic Resistance in Ituri, a militia group, terrorize villagers, raping women and girls, looting and killing civilians, says Muzungu Tabala, the chief of the town. In the past three months, his office has recorded more than a dozen complaints of rape, he says.
But prosecutions are rare because the nearest courtroom is in Bunia town, the district capital, he says. Most victims cannot afford to make multiple trips to Bunia for court hearings, he says. Besides, victims and witnesses are afraid to speak out for fear of reprisals.
“Victims sometimes report the attacks to us, but we don’t have the mandate to try police officers and military officers,” Tabala says. “This court has delivered justice to victims who have been helpless in the hands of officers who oppress them instead of protecting them.”
The mobile military court trials will end impunity among police and military officers and send a warning to rebel groups committing crimes in the village, he says.
The Military Garrison Court of Ituri heard 15 cases in Kasenyi involving 23 defendants, five of whom were still on the run. Seven defendants were charged with rape. Others were charged with armed robbery, murder and manslaughter.
People found guilty of rape were sentenced to 20 years in prison and fined 20,000 Congolese francs ($22) as restitution for the victims. Other convicted criminals were sentenced to three to 20 years in prison during the court hearings that ran from July 23 to Aug. 1.
The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), U.N. Development Program (UNDP) and Lawyers Without Borders provide financial and technical support to the court.
Alice, who attended the trial but testified on camera from a separate room for security reasons, says she is happy that her attackers have been brought to justice.
“I want them to serve their prison sentences as stipulated by the Congolese law,” she says.
She says the rape incident changed her life completely.
“All my classmates know what happened to me; I’m too ashamed to go back to school,” she says. “Every time I go out, people look at me with pity in their eyes and gossip that I’m the girl who was raped by three men. I prefer to stay at home.”
Her Congolese lawyer Marijani Mitterand says the judgment passed on Alice’s attackers was fair and commends the Military Garrison Court of Ituri for bringing justice closer to victims.
“The good thing about this field court is that they have made things easy for the population who could not access normal courtrooms because they are located far from their villages,” he says.
Lt. Ngoy Lucien Ngorombe, one of the officers accused of raping Alice, says he is innocent and asks the court to properly investigate his case.
Alice’s father says the mobile court hearings provided a good opportunity for him to see the men who raped his daughter being brought to justice.
“I’m very happy and satisfied with what the mobile court is doing in Kasenyi because this will deter military officers from raping women in the village. Let justice be done!” he says.
Charles Lusanga, a resident of Kasenyi, agrees.
“This somehow serves as a lesson to other criminals in the province,” Lusanga says.
This was his first time to see soldiers on trial.
Some residents say the judges should have handed down tougher penalties, such as life imprisonment or death.
“I am not satisfied with the judge’s decision, because those criminals can be released following orders given by any authority,” says Marie Aluta, a resident who attended the hearings. “This is a farce; they have done something worthy of death.”
Tchiteya, the first president of the Military Garrison Court of Ituri, says the public hearings are intended to prosecute officers of the FARDC and the Congolese National Police accused of rape and other crimes. They are also meant to bring the machinery of justice closer to litigants, he says.
Aime Umba, a magistrate of the court, says the public trials have sent a strong message that nobody is above the law. He urges the public to support the court in its efforts to fight crime.
“These criminals are our brothers, sons and this country’s youth. We must get them to disarm,” he says.
Ndayaho Sylvestre translated the article from French.