As a rebel leader during the Democratic Republic of Congo’s bloody conflict a decade ago, Gen. Jerome Kakwavu was known for his ruthlessness. Now he will be remembered for something else: as the first Congolese general successfully prosecuted for rape.
Last week, a Congolese military court convicted Kakwavu for the war crimes of rape, murder, and torture and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. The conviction and 10-year sentence of a single general for rape may seem like a meager achievement in a country where hundreds of thousands of women and girls, young and old, have been victims of sexual violence since Congo’s conflicts began in 1996. But it’s significant because the top brass in Congo seem untouchable for their crimes or those committed by troops under their command. Of the 187 convictions handed down by military courts for sexual violence between July 2011 and December 2013, recorded by the United Nations, only three were senior army officers at lieutenant colonel rank.
I documented many of Kakwavu’s abuses. In 2004, a colleague and I travelled to northeastern Congo where Kakwavu, then a rebel leader, ruled through crude violence from 2002 to 2004. Victims and witnesses came to see us, often under the cover of darkness, fearful to be caught talking to human rights activists but determined that Kakwavu’s crimes should be exposed. In hushed tones they told us about his repeated public summary executions, his victims tied to palm trees while he shot at them. One victim described how Kakwavu sat in an armchair watching his men torture him, but then took the whip himself when he believed the soldiers were being too soft.
But what stands out for me was the fear of the parents of teenage girls. Kakwavu regularly ordered his fighters to go to local schools to find pretty young girls who he would sexually enslave for days or weeks. Parents who desperately tried to free their daughters were arrested or threatened. Parents stopped sending their girls to school, fearing for their safety.
In 2004 Kakwavu and his rebel group were integrated into the Congolese army, no questions asked, despite Human Rights Watch and UN human rights officers raising concerns about his record of serious abuses. After pressure from a visiting delegation of ambassadors from UN Security Council members, Kakwavu was arrested in 2005, but remained out on provisional release and continued his duties as a general. It took pressure from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a visit to Congo in 2009, for Congolese authorities to detain Kakwavu, pending a trial.
The investigations dragged on and the trial was delayed numerous times, raising questions about the due process rights of the accused. The justice system in Congo remains beset by corruption, limited capacity, and political interference. Ultimately, two courageous girls agreed to testify about their sexual enslavement, which proved crucial for the rape verdict.
Kakwavu’s conviction begins to shatter the illusion that generals are shielded from the law. Other officers contemplating human rights abuses in Congo should take note.