KINSHASA, 16 Feb 2005 (IRIN) - The International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) has urged the Congolese government to vet and prosecute former militia leaders instead of appointing them to high-ranking positions in the newly integrated national army.
"If the Democratic Republic of the Congo [DRC] is to achieve a lasting and sustainable peace, it must not appoint individuals to the army when there is evidence that they may be responsible for serious abuses," Juan Méndez, the president of the ICTJ and UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, said.
He issued the statement in New York on Tuesday, just days after a military court in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, sentenced 21 soldiers to death for atrocities they committed in the east of the country.
The court handed down the sentences only a few weeks after the government commissioned four suspected human rights abusers as army generals.
The ICTJ said there were reports that two more alleged human rights violators also wanted to become generals.
The ICTJ urged the Congolese government to desist from appointing militia leaders, "suspected of penetrating massacres and other war crimes", to senior command positions in the army. Instead, it urged the government to "prosecute the promoted former militias".
The four, recently made generals, were leaders of militia groups that allegedly terrorised, abused and killed civilians in the south and east of the country until a peace deal was reached in 2003. Under the agreement, former rebels could to be assimilated into the national army.
Last week, two other militia leaders, Jean-Pierre Guena, also known as Shinja Shinja - meaning "throat-cutter" in Swahili - and Bakanda Bakoka, both from the southeastern Katanga Province, demanded military appointments in exchange for commitments to disarm their groups.
In an interview with UN-supported Radio Okapi, Guena threatened to burn down north Katanga if he received a rank lower than general, the ICTJ said.
It added that the alleged crimes of the former militia and aspiring generals compared with those of the 21 rank and file soldiers who received death sentences. The soldiers received death sentences for looting, raping and disobeying orders.
The convicted soldiers were fighting against dissident army units when they committed their crimes.
"The objective of the Beni trial was to instil discipline in the reunified army," Jean-Willy Mutombo, the spokesman for the chief of staff of the Congolese armed forces, said.
He said besides those sentenced to death, another soldier was jailed for 20 years for raping minors while six others received prison sentences of 10 to 20 years for indiscipline.
Commenting on the trial, the official in charge of the human rights section of the UN Mission in the DRC, Sonia Bakar, told IRIN: "The trial was fast, Everything was done on one day while there should have been a thorough investigation into the matter."
The president of a Congolese NGO, the Association for the Defence of Human Rights, Amigo Gonde, said it was unacceptable that people "who have blood on their hands" are named into the army hierarchy instead of being punished.
"They should be brought to justice," he said.
In October 2003, three Congolese NGOs submitted a report to the International Criminal Court (ICC), documenting atrocities committed by militias led by Guena and Bakoka.
An investigation by the UN Mission in the DRC concluded that Guena and his militiamen were responsible for killings, torture, rape and mutilations of civilians in Katanga in February 2004.
ICTJ has been involved in transitional justice in the DRC since early 2003 by providing advice and support to civil society groups, government institutions and international humanitarian organisations.
Mendez said steps must be taken to end impunity and to promote justice and accountability.
He said the Congolese government should implement a comprehensive and publicly transparent vetting programme for prospective and current high-ranking military officers, based on a criteria designed to exclude human rights abusers from military service.
"Experience has shown that integrating rebel leaders into the regular army does not guarantee their loyalty," the ICTJ said. "Dissident army units led by two reintegrated rebels, Col Jules Mutebusi and Gen Laurent Nkunda, clashed with regular army forces in May and June of 2004 and occupied a provincial capital for several days."