After two years of trial, a military court in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has sentenced a rebel leader, Ntabo Ntaberi, to life in prison for mass rape and crimes against humanity.
The two-year trial involved more than 300 victims is a landmark for Congolese justice, rights groups and the United Nations said.
Ntaberi was charged with war crimes including murder, sexual slavery and child soldier recruitment in DR Congo.
Also known as Cheka, Ntaberi surrendered to the UN mission in DR Congo in July 2017 after being on the run for nearly six years.
He was one of the leaders of a militia group known as Nduma Defense of Congo, which operated in the restive North Kivu province.
Authorities first issued a warrant for Sheka’s arrest in January 2011 but he remained at large until 2017, when he surrendered to U.N. peacekeepers.
Sheka and Séraphin Zitonda, a commander from another militia, received life sentences at the trial in the city of Goma for crimes committed in Congo’s eastern province of North Kivu between 2010 and 2014.
“This verdict is a source of immense hope for the many victims of the conflicts in the DRC: their suffering has been heard and recognized, and impunity is not inevitable,” said Leila Zerrougui, head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo.
The men were found guilty of orchestrating raids on villages in Walikale territory in mid-2010 where 380 men, women and children were raped, and 287 killed.
“We salute the courage of the victims, who have continued to testify despite the threats,” said Yuma Fatuma Kahindo, a lawyer representing the group of victims.
According to the UN, Sheka’s forces and two other armed groups raped at least 387 civilians between July 30 and August 2, 2010, to punish them for alleged collaboration with Congolese government forces.
HRW said Sheka’s forces were also said to have held many women and girls hostage as sex slaves.
His soldiers are also accused of razing almost 1,000 homes and businesses and taking about 100 people off into forced labour.