A large crowd gathered around the open sides of the makeshift courtroom in the village of Kamanyola in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in early March to watch the culmination of a trial of 15 military officers for the rape of minors.
They watched in silence, some craning to see better, as a soldier stripped the epaulettes off a colonel whom a judge had just ordered be dishonourably discharged from the army and sentenced to seven years in prison for raping a local 14-year-old girl last September.
“The fact that a very high-ranking officer has been sentenced 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 offered a rare chance of justice for rape in conflict-hit eastern DRC, where an estimated half of the women have experienced sexual violence in some form.
During the trial, held in an open-air wooden structure, several victims and one victim’s father offered their testimonies in specially designed hoods that obscured their faces – an indicator of the fear of stigma that stops many from coming forward.
“I don’t have any friends any more,” one victim said.
Holding the hearings in the local community helps “show people the need to speak up about cases of sexual violence”, said lawyer Armand Muhima, whose organisation funded the trial. “The goal … is to educate the people so they know that the law is there for everyone.”
Muhima works for 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 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 violence are never investigated or prosecuted, and very few are even reported”, it said.
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, which supported 12 investigations by military courts and seven mobile court hearings.
The mobile courts, mostly funded by foreign donors, 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.
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 father of a victim at the Kamanyola trial said he just wanted justice for his daughter.
“I need to see this case come to an end according to the law. I don’t ask for anything [else],” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
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