(New York) - The conviction of the Mai Mai commander Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga and 20 other Mai Mai combatants for crimes on major charges, including crimes against humanity, by a military court on March 5, 2009, was a crucial step toward creating accountability in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today.
The trial by the military court of the garrison of Haut-Katanga, in Katanga province, lasted for 19 months and was the country's largest trial involving charges of crimes against humanity. In its landmark ruling, the military court also found the government liable for failing to disarm the Mai Mai militias and awarded damages to the victims.
"This conviction is a victory for the victims of Gédéon and his Mai Mai militia, who inflicted horrific atrocities on thousands of people in central Katanga," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "This trial has shown the important role that Congolese courts play in giving victims a voice and in making clear that attacks on civilians will have serious consequences."
Known commonly by his first name, Gédéon (whose legal name is Gédéon Kyungu Mutanga Wa Bafunkwa Kanonga) was the commander of the Mai Mai militia responsible for brutal crimes committed in the "triangle of death" in central Katanga between 2003 and 2006.
The judges of the military court found him guilty of crimes against humanity, insurgency and terrorism. Another six defendants, including Gédéon's wife, Ilunga Monga Nkuma, were also found guilty of crimes against humanity, in addition to other crimes. Fourteen defendants were convicted of insurgency, and three of them were also convicted of terrorism. Four defendants were acquitted because of insufficient evidence, while another was acquitted because he was a minor at the time the crimes were committed and was deemed not criminally liable.
Gédéon and six other defendants were sentenced to death. Although Congo has not carried out executions for a number of years, Human Rights Watch expressed serious concern about the sentence. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel and inhumane nature. The death penalty is not an applicable punishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The court also ruled that the government had civil liability for failing to disarm the Mai Mai, its former allies, after the war in Congo ended in 2003. The judges awarded damages to dozens of victims who were accepted as civil parties to the criminal proceedings. One was awarded the equivalent of US$300,000 while others were granted between US$80,000 and US$150,000. The Congolese government is jointly liable with those convicted of the crimes. The ruling sets an important precedent for compensation for those who have suffered human rights abuses.
"Awarding damages to victims sends a strong message that the government is not above the law," said Van Woudenberg. "We urge the government to respect the ruling and to comply as a matter of priority."
The military trial was also significant because the judges applied the definition of crimes against humanity as found in the Rome Statute of ICC. The Rome Statute was ratified by the Democratic Republic of Congo government in 2002, and its application by the military court illustrates the ICC's impact beyond its own trials in The Hague.
Investigations and legal proceedings against Congolese army commanders who also committed abuses in Katanga during the same period have not been equally successful, however. There have been only four convictions of soldiers, for failing to assist persons in danger, despite the evidence of serious crimes including summary executions and rape. One of those convicted was the military commander of the Congolese army's operations against the Mai Mai, Major Andre Ekembe Monga Yamba, but he was sentenced to only 15 months in prison.
Human Rights Watch called on the Congolese government to place those convicted of crimes against humanity, including Gédéon, in a high-security prison in Katanga or in another part of the country, to minimize the risk of escape. The present intention is to transfer him to Kassapa prison, Katanga's main prison, but Human Rights Watch researchers who visited the prison in June 2008 found the security there to be insufficient. Prison breaks have been common in Congo.
"All too often, we have seen human rights abusers convicted in trial but then left to escape from prison only weeks or months later," said Van Woudenberg. "The government needs to ensure this will not happen with Gédéon and others convicted of crimes against humanity."
Gédéon's Mai Mai militia was a local defense force supported by the Congolese government during the war with Rwanda and Uganda, which began in 1998. After the war ended in 2003, the national government sought to integrate the Mai Mai into the national army, but failed. Increasingly hostile to the government, Mai Mai leaders took control of huge swathes of central Katanga, fought their former allies, the Congolese army, and terrorized local civilians whom the Mai Mai initially claimed they were defending.
By November 2005, the United Nations estimated that 150,000 people had been forced to flee their homes and that hundreds had been killed. The suffering and abuses were so widespread that local residents called the region where Gédéon operated "the triangle of death".
Human Rights Watch researchers documented crimes committed by both parties to the conflict in central Katanga: the Mai Mai militias and the Congolese army, the FARDC, who carried out a brutal military operation in 2005 to attempt to neutralize the Mai Mai militia. In July 2006, Human Rights Watch sent detailed legal submissions to the ministers of justice and defense calling for judicial investigations into the abuses and for those responsible to be held to account.
Gédéon was detained on May 16, 2006, and the trial against him began on July 10, 2007. Gédéon's wife, his six bodyguards, and 17 others of his co-accused were charged between November 2007 and January 2008 in the same proceedings. Another commander was apprehended in January 2009 and was also included in the trial.