As the Democratic Republic of Congo prepares for elections, the government’s failure to take prompt and effective action against soldiers and others responsible for killing, raping and torturing civilians in Katanga could encourage further violence and insecurity in the southern province, Human Rights Watch said today.
With testimonies, analysis, photographs and video, the multimedia web special entitled "The Triangle of Death: A Place of Horrors in Katanga Province" documents widespread abuses committed by government soldiers and combatants of a local defense force known as the Mai Mai during three years of violence in central Katanga. Hundreds have been killed and more than 150,000 have fled their homes from the zone of military operations that local residents have dubbed "the triangle of death."
Incumbent President Joseph Kabila, himself from Katanga, is the current front-runner in the presidential contest, but with more than 30 other contenders, he may well face a run-off election weeks or even months after the first poll, which is scheduled for July 30. In addition, parliamentary elections require a two-stage process, lengthening the period before a new government is finally installed.
"The electoral period will be lengthy and characterized by uncertainty before a new government takes power," said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. "During this time, justice cannot wait. Authorities must start holding abusers accountable if they want to discourage others from using similarly abusive tactics now and in the future."
In November 2005, the Congolese army launched a military operation to quell an insurgency in Katanga led by the Mai Mai. Government soldiers rounded up hundreds of civilians suspected of being Mai Mai, and deliberately killed or tortured to death dozens of them. They gang-raped scores of women alleged to have supported the Mai Mai.
Mai Mai combatants under the command of Kyungu Mutanga, known as Gédéon, and another Mai Mai leader, Makabe Kalenga Ngwele, have also killed, raped and otherwise abused civilians since 2002. In some cases, the Mai Mai publicly tortured victims before killing and cannibalizing them in public ceremonies intended to terrorize the local population.
The Mai Mai of Katanga were launched in 1998 as a popular resistance force against the invading foreign armies of Uganda and Rwanda, but later turned against the central government and local communities.
In the web special posted today, Human Rights Watch documents the war crimes committed by both sides to this conflict and urges the government to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators.
To date, Congolese authorities have failed to act effectively against abusers. On May 12 Gédéon surrendered to United Nations peacekeepers in Mitwaba, central Katanga. Several days later, he was handed over to Congolese judicial officials who have kept him in detention but have not charged him with any crime.
The current government has appointed former warlords from other parts of Congo, such as Ituri and the Kivus, as generals in the national army, ignoring credible information implicating them in war crimes and crimes against humanity. The most recent appointment was made on July 17, when the government granted the post of colonel in the national army to Peter Karim, a commander from the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), a murderous armed group in Ituri.
United Nations officials have provided the Congolese government with information about human rights abuses by members of armed groups and soldiers of the national army, including a file about military abuses submitted to the government in January.
"If President Kabila and other government ministers currently standing for elections are serious about a commitment to justice, they should not appoint suspected war criminals to high military ranks and they must bring to justice their own soldiers accused of such crimes," said Des Forges. "A national army staffed by war criminals is unlikely to provide any security to its citizens whether during elections or after."