A rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has completed trials of 27 of its soldiers charged with having committed human rights violations in late 2002 in the towns of Mambasa et Komanda in the northeastern Orientale Province.
However, those sentenced will have the right to appeal, Jose Endundo, a Kinshasa-based spokesman for the Ugandan-backed Mouvement de liberation du Congo (MLC), told IRIN on Wednesday.
The MLC, whose forces were widely accused of human rights violations, including rape, summary executions, cannibalism, and forcible cannibalism, tried a total of 27 men before its own military court in the northwestern DRC town of Gbadolite, where MLC is headquartered.
The UN Mission in the DRC, known as MONUC, confirmed on 15 January that rebel groups in the northeast of the country had been engaging in acts of cannibalism. MONUC said it had received witness reports of rebels belonging to the MLC and its ally, the Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie-National, being involved in cannibalism and forcible cannibalism in Mambasa and Mangina, respectively 50 km and 70 km northwest of Beni.
The verdicts were issued on Tuesday, one week after the trials had begun, without the presence of defense attorneys, who were due to travel from Kinshasa, but were prevented by government authorities from taking a flight to Gbadolite provided by MONUC.
"This is a pseudo-trial for a mockery of justice," Masudi Ngele, the DRC justice minister, said last week.
The two receiving the most severe punishment were Cpl Katembo Kombi and Lt Jose Zima, who were sentenced to life imprisonment. Cpl Patrick Makigba, charged with manslaughter, was sentenced to 62 months' imprisonment, while Col Freddy Ngalimo, found guilty of permitting insubordination by troops under his control, was sentenced to 43 months' imprisonment for failure to assist people in danger and failure to denounce murder committed by his subordinates. Sixteen rebels received sentences ranging from six to 43 months for crimes of desertion, disobedience, or rape, and seven others received only "internal sanctions" for indiscipline.
"They will definitely have the right to appeal, even though the trials took place before a military court," Endundo said.
"There will be a jurisdiction of second degree, and we hope that the appeals will take place within a unified country," he added.
He was referring to efforts currently under way in Pretoria, South Africa, where technical committees are trying to resolve remaining impediments to the implementation of a national transitional government, including issues regarding a unified national army, the protection of transitional government leaders, and the drafting of a constitution for the transitional period.
Endundo said that the accused had the right to be represented by lawyers working in northwestern Equateur Province of the DRC.
Human rights activists in Kinshasa expressed their doubts about the verdicts.
"We are concerned that the trials which took place with unusual rapidity, which casts doubts on the respect of norms for a just and equitable trial," said Dieudonne Diku, the secretary-general of the Observatoire Congolais des Droits de l'Homme, a Kinshasa-based human rights NGO.
"Neither Kinshasa nor Gbadolite were competent to hold these trials, as the accused were charged with crimes of war and crimes against humanity, and should be tried before the International Criminal Court," said Olivier Kilima Mambayi, one of the lawyers who was prevented from travelling to Gbadolite.