A militia leader, Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, who has been implicated in numerous atrocities in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, surrendered today to the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo.
In January 2011, Congolese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Sheka for crimes against humanity of mass rape. However, he remained at large for more than six years as his armed group, known as the Nduma Defense of Congo, continued to commit grave crimes. It is unclear what prompted his surrender.
According to the United Nations, between July 30 and August 2, 2010, Sheka’s militia and two other armed groups raped at least 387 women, men, girls, and boys in 13 villages along the Kibua to Mpofi road in eastern Congo’s Walikale territory.
Since the warrant was issued, Human Rights Watch has documented further crimes. Sheka’s forces killed at least 70 civilians, many of whom were hacked to death by machete. In some cases, Sheka’s fighters mutilated the bodies of those killed and later paraded the body parts around town, while chanting ethnic slurs. Sheka’s forces have also continued to rape women and girls and forcibly recruited scores of young men and boys into their ranks.
Congolese judicial officials, with the support of UN peacekeepers, attempted to arrest Sheka as early as July 2011, but he escaped, allegedly tipped off by authorities. Four months later, Sheka openly ran for public office in eastern Congo and police made no efforts to arrest him as he held public campaign rallies. Since then, government and UN officials met with Sheka on three occasions, encouraging him to surrender but making no efforts to arrest him. Human Rights Watch found that some Congolese army officers, Rwandan officials and other armed groups, including the M23, provided financial and logistical support to Sheka’s armed group.
There is a serious risk that some of Sheka’s former collaborators will want to silence him. Sheka’s chief of staff died under mysterious circumstances in prison following his arrest in 2011. Altogether, four armed group commanders and four army deserters have been sought on arrest warrants for their alleged involvement in the Walikale mass rape.
Thousands of civilians in eastern Congo have been harmed by crimes committed by troops under Sheka’s command, and many still fear future attacks. His surrender brings hope for justice and a possible reprieve from the violence. Congolese authorities, with support from the UN, should ensure Sheka’s safety in detention and promptly bring him to justice in a fair trial before an independent, impartial and credible court. Authorities should also strengthen their efforts to arrest Sheka’s former military commander, Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, whose troops continue to wreak havoc on civilians in eastern Congo.