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Congolese Soldiers on Trial for War Crimes

VOA News | Published on December 28, 2006

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A group of Congolese soldiers is on trial for war crimes allegedly committed in the country's volatile east. U.N. investigators last month discovered mass graves containing around 30 bodies, including women and children, inside an army camp. Joe Bavier has more for VOA from Kinshasa.

The 14 defendants were based in Bavi, 40 kilometers south of Bunia, the capital of the troubled Ituri district. A U.N. human rights team found the bodies in late November in three mass graves, which appeared to have been dug recently.

Only 10 of the defendants appeared in court on Wednesday. The four others were never arrested, and the head of the five-member military tribunal, Major Innocent Mayembe, said they are in hiding and would be tried in absentia.

All are being charged with murder as a war crime, and could face life in prison if convicted.

Violence Has Marked Campaign Period in the DRC
Violence Has Marked Campaign Period in the DRC
The U.N. said in November it believed the victims disappeared during army operations against local militia in late August or early September, meaning the killings took place in the run-up to Congo's October 29 presidential run-off election.

The elections were the first free polls in more than 40 years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and were meant to draw a line under a 1998 to 2003 civil war that left an estimated four million Congolese dead.

At the trial, attorneys from the international legal aid organization, Lawyers Without Borders, are to represent the victims. Proceedings were adjourned until January 2, to allow them time to prepare.

Human rights organizations have applauded the opening of the trial, but they say most abuses continue to go unpunished.

Congolese government forces have frequently been accused of human rights abuses, particularly during operations to pacify Congo's east, which has continued to witness sporadic violence in the three years since the signing of a national peace deal.

Abuses documented by Human Rights Watch include killings, summary executions, torture, rape and the destruction of villages.

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