Saturday, October 28, 2023

Mobile Court Brings Justice to DRC Rape Victims


The eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been plagued by a long-running sexual violence crisis, fuelled by multiple armed groups operating in the region. However, a recent trial of 15 military officers accused of raping minors offered a rare chance for justice. The trial, which took place from 27 February to 9 March in the village of Kamanyola, was overseen by a mobile military court and saw a colonel dishonourably discharged from the army and sentenced to seven years in prison for raping a 14-year-old girl. Twelve of the other soldiers were also found guilty. The trial was held in an open-air wooden structure, with victims and one victim’s father offering their testimonies in specially designed hoods that obscured their faces. This was an indicator of the fear of stigma that often stops victims from coming forward.

The trial was funded by the Panzi Foundation, an organisation set up by Nobel Prize-winning gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, who campaigns to help the hundreds of thousands of women raped in eastern DRC since the region plunged into conflict in the 1990s. The Second Congo War, which killed millions of people, formally ended in 2002, but Congolese forces are still battling multiple armed groups in eastern regions, fuelling the long-running sexual violence crisis.

In 2014, the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office in Congo (UNJHRO) reported that some progress had been made in the fight against impunity for sexual violence crimes. However, “most cases of sexual violence are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are even reported”. The same year, the government launched an action plan to combat sexual violence by members of the military under which hundreds of commanders committed to report cases.

In 2022, 314 people in DRC, including 71 soldiers and 143 members of armed groups, were convicted of offences related to human rights violations and abuses, such as sexual violence, according to UNJHRO. The organisation supported 12 investigations by military courts and seven mobile court hearings. The mobile courts have been operating in DRC for more than a decade, bringing judges, prosecutors, and defence lawyers to remote villages in an effort to show local communities that crimes committed far from urban centres are not beyond the reach of the law.

However, even when cases are opened, the judicial process can be slow. On Monday, NGO the Congolese Society For the Rule of Law asked authorities in a statement why it had taken over a year to schedule a trial for defendants in connection with the rape of more than 100 women and girls in a high-profile case from 2016.

The Kamanyola trial was held in the local community to help “show people the need to speak up about cases of sexual violence”, said lawyer Armand Muhima. He added that holding hearings in this way helps to educate people so they know that the law is there for everyone. One victim at the trial said she no longer had any friends. The father of another victim said he just wanted justice for his daughter and for the case to come to an end according to the law.

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