(Kinshasa) – Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo should immediately arrest an armed group leader running for political office who is wanted for crimes against humanity, including mass rape, Human Rights Watch said today. A Mai Mai militia leader, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, is running as a candidate for the National Assembly in elections scheduled for November 28, 2011.
A Congolese arrest warrant against Sheka for mass rape issued on January 6 has yet to be enforced.
“Congolese authorities should be arresting Sheka for mass rape whether he is running for office or not,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to arrest someone who is out publicly campaigning for votes sends a message that even the most egregious crimes will go unpunished.”
Sheka is the leader of a militia known as the Mai Mai Sheka, which operates in remote Walikale territory, North Kivu province, in eastern Congo. In July 2011, the United Nations published a detailed report documenting the rapes of at least 387 civilians – 300 women, 23 men, 55 girls, and 9 boys – between July 30 and August 2, 2010, in 13 villages along the Kibua to Mpofi road in Walikale territory. The UN report said the Mai Mai Sheka was among a coalition of three armed groups responsible for the mass rape, and named Sheka individually as one of the leaders who carried command responsibility.
The UN investigators found that Sheka and two other armed group leaders were “well aware of the planning and organization of this [military] operation, which was launched against an entire civilian population, and that they shared the spoils of the lootings at the end of the attacks.” It was one of the largest documented cases of mass rape in eastern Congo in recent years.
The UN report also named Capt. Serafin Lionso of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu militia, and Lt. Col. Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, commander of a small unit of Congolese army deserters, as bearing command responsibility.
On October 6, 2010, following a public outcry against the mass rape in the media, Sheka handed over one of his commanders, Sadoke Kikunda Mayele, to UN and Congolese army officials, possibly in an attempt to shield himself from prosecution.
Congolese military prosecutors, with the assistance of the UN, opened a judicial investigation shortly after the attacks. Military authorities later issued eight arrest warrants for crimes against humanity, including for sexual violence, and other serious crimes, against Sheka, Mayele, two FDLR rebel commanders, including Captain Lionso, and four Congolese army deserters. Nsengiyumva, one of the alleged planners of the operation, was killed in a separate incident before an arrest warrant could be issued for him. Apart from Mayele, no other arrests have been made.
In July, Sheka traveled to Goma, North Kivu, reportedly for medical treatment. Congolese judicial officials, with the support of the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, attempted to arrest him at the private residence of a Congolese army officer, where Sheka was spending the night. But Sheka escaped, allegedly tipped off by Congolese army personnel who had a close working relationship with him. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any other attempts to arrest Sheka or any of his co-accused.
In late October, Congolese authorities decided to move the case to trial even though only one of the eight accused is in custody. Human Rights Watch considers trials in absentia to violate the rights of the accused to conduct a meaningful legal defense as provided under international law.
Human Rights Watch urged Congolese authorities, in partnership with the UN peacekeeping mission and other international entities, to ensure adequate protection for victims and witnesses in the case. The July UN report noted that victims who had spoken to judicial authorities had been subjected to threats and intimidation by militia members alleged to have participated in the attack.
“If the Congolese government is serious about ending sexual violence, then it needs to demonstrate the political will to arrest those implicated in mass rape,” Van Woudenberg said. “It’s a mockery of justice to start a trial before the principal suspects are even in detention and while one of the accused is openly campaigning for government office.”
In September, Sheka registered as an independent candidate for the National Assembly in the Walikale electoral district. When the official candidate list was published in October, his name appeared as candidate number 18 on the list of 65 candidates for two legislative seats in Walikale.
Congo’s electoral law does not prohibit a person charged with a crime from running for office. Electoral law disqualifies individuals for running for office if they have been found guilty under a definitive judgment for serious crimes, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, rape, torture, or assassination. However, National Assembly members are granted immunity from criminal prosecution, unless that immunity is lifted by a special committee of the assembly.
Although the Congolese government has made some attempts to arrest and prosecute combatants wanted for rape and other atrocities, few have been senior officers or armed group leaders. Similarly, Bosco Ntaganda, a general in the Congolese army wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, remains at large and has continued to order attacks on civilians and commit other serious abuses. Ntaganda lives openly in Goma and plays a leading role in military operations in eastern Congo.
“Sheka’s campaigning for office despite a warrant for his arrest demonstrates the Congolese government’s failure to act against those most responsible for sexual violence and other mass atrocities,” Van Woudenberg said. “Candidates in the upcoming elections should make firm commitments to end Congo’s culture of impunity.”