(Nairobi) – Three-year prison sentences for three Congolese peacekeepers convicted for the 2014 murder of 11 civilians in the Central African Republic does not reflect the gravity of the crime. The sentences deny justice to the victims, who included women and children.
On April 26, 2018, the Appeals Court in Brazzaville, consisting of judges and jurors, found the peacekeepers guilty of the murder of civilians in Boali in March 2014, crimes classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity under national and international law. However, the judges sentenced them to only three years in prison. The men – Bonaventure Abena, Paterne Ngouala, and Kévin Pacôme Ntalani Bantsimba – are now free, having served most of the sentence pending the verdict. Human Rights Watch was not able to secure the written judgment until July.
“The authorities in the Republic of Congo missed an opportunity to provide justice for the murders of civilians and to show that no peacekeeper is above the law,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Giving the soldiers who committed murder little more than a slap on the wrist sent a damaging message to other peacekeepers that they risk little if they commit such crimes.”
Representatives from an association of family members of the victims were appalled at the sentence. “What kind of justice is this?” one family member told Human Rights Watch. “The Congolese judges must explain how the murderer of my brother is free after only three years of detention.”
Human Rights Watch first reported in June 2014 on enforced disappearances in Boali by peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo who were members of an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission known as MISCA. On February 16, 2016, an exhumation of a mass grave near the Congolese base uncovered the remains of 12 people. The victims were later identified as those detained by the peacekeepers in March 2014.
The victims were arrested following a clash between the Congolese peacekeepers and a local militia leader, the self-styled “General” Maurice Konomo, in which one peacekeeper died. Konomo was the leader of one of the mostly Christian anti-balaka groups formed in response to violence that started in late 2012 by mostly Muslim Seleka groups.
Angered by the death of their colleague, the peacekeepers surrounded the militia leader’s house, killing one unarmed boy and arresting at least 12 other civilians or unarmed fighters, including five women, one of whom witnesses say was six months pregnant; a child about 10 years old; and a 7-month-old baby. The baby’s remains were never recovered.
In 2017, experts from the Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic and the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team assisted Central African authorities in investigating the mass grave. In November 2017, the experts handed a forensics report to the Central African investigating judge acting on a request from Congolese authorities to investigate the murders.
It is unclear what role, if any, this report played in the deliberations of the Congolese judges in the case, and it is not mentioned in the court’s judgment. The judgement misspells the names of several victims and the peacekeepers were convicted for the murder of 11 people, rather than the 13 who were killed. No witnesses from the Central African Republic were called during the trial.
According to media reports, at least one of the accused, Abena, admitted in court that his men killed 12 people on the order of a local authority in Boali.
The court found Abena, Ngouala, and Ntalani Bantsimba guilty of war crimes, which can carry a life sentence or death under Congo’s 1998 national law on genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch does not support the use of the death penalty in any circumstance. In this case, the judges imposed a mere three-year sentence on all three men.
The court’s reasoning remains unclear. The judgment mentions extenuating circumstances but does not say what they are, nor does it mention any other factors the judges took into consideration. Congolese authorities did not notify Central African judicial authorities about the trial or make any information about the trial public.
While international law does not prescribe strict sentencing guidelines, international practice provides that punishment for serious crimes should reflect the gravity of the crime and serve the purposes, among others, of retribution and deterrence. While the individual circumstances of each defendant may help determine the sentence imposed, the judgment does not clarify what led the judges to impose such a lenient sentence and if improper considerations were also given weight.
In mid-May, Central African authorities expressed frustration and anger to Human Rights Watch that they had not been aware of the April verdict. The victims’ families also were not aware of the verdict until Human Rights Watch visited them in late June. They are considering a civil suit in Brazzaville against the peacekeepers. The judgment noted that nobody representing the civil suit was present in the court.
The AU, which held the mandate for the MISCA troops, has taken no evident action in the case. AU officials told Human Rights Watch in 2015 that a report on disappearances and killings by peacekeepers at Boali had been drafted, but it continues to say that they are not at liberty to disclose its contents or conclusions.
To deter such crimes, the AU should immediately publish its internal report, Human Rights Watch said. The AU should also press the Congolese authorities to publicly release the full reasoning for the judgment in the case and, together with authorities in both Congo and the Central African Republic, closely monitor any civil claims the victims’ families may pursue and support them in their efforts to secure a remedy.
“A lenient sentence that fails in any way to reflect the gravity of a horrific massacre by peacekeepers sends the wrong message,” Mudge said. “Punishment should fit the crime and the judges should be required to explain and defend how they reached a term of three years for multiple murders, or to reconsider their sentence.”
Under the status of mission agreement between the Central African government and the AU, troop-contributing countries are responsible for holding to account members of their forces for any crimes committed in the Central African Republic. In September 2014, when the United Nations took over peacekeeping responsibilities from the AU, UN officials insisted that all existing Congolese peacekeepers be rotated out of the Central African Republic and replaced with new soldiers to ensure that none of those responsible for the abuses became part of the UN mission.
Human Rights Watch has documented multiple killings and abuses by Congolese peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, including the death by torture of two anti-balaka leaders in Bossangoa in December 2013; the public execution of two suspected anti-balaka in Mambéré in February 2014; the beating to death of two civilians in Mambéré in June 2015; and exploitation and abuse of women and girls by Congolese UN peacekeepers, among others, in Bambari from mid-September to mid-December 2015. The entire Congolese contingent was repatriated by the UN in July 2017.