A military tribunal in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri District has sentenced a militia leader to 20 years’ imprisonment for crimes against humanity.
Yves Panga Mandro Kahwa had been charged with creating the Parti pour l'Unité et la sauvegarde de l'Intégrité du Congo (PUSIC) insurrection movement in 2002 in Tchomia, 60 km southeast of Bunia, the main town in Ituri. The tribunal ruled on Tuesday that PUSIC was responsible for the destabilisation of the district.
"This sentencing shows a fight for the rule of law and an end to impunity," Mbitso Ngedza, the deputy police chief for administration in Ituri, said on Wednesday in Bunia.
The tribunal ruled that Kahwa's crimes against humanity date to 15 and 16 October 2002, when 10 people died after he set fire to a health-centre, schools and churches in the Zumbe and Bedu Ezekere localities, 10 km southeast of Bunia.
Ituri has remained volatile due to militia activity, despite various Congolese political parties and rebel groups signing an agreement in 2002 that ended the civil war in most parts of the country.
The tribunal also directed that Kahwa pay 14 victims of his crimes between US $2,500 and $75,000 in compensation.
Kahwa had also been charged for the abduction, over two weeks in 2002, of Prof Ntuba Luaba, then minister for human rights. Another militia leader, Thomas Lubanga of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), has also been charged with complicity in the abduction, which took place in the nation's capital, Kinshasa. Lubanga is in the custody of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, awaiting trial for crimes against humanity, allegedly committed in Ituri.
Kahwa is the common-law chief of the Bahema Banywagi community in Djugu, where he also served as a "major" in the UPC, one of the militia groups that had been active in Ituri since 2003.
The military tribunal has been hearing the case against Kahwa since 19 June, with proceedings in session, despite his refusal to appear before both the civil and military courts in Ituri, which he claimed were under the influence of the United Nations Mission in the DRC, MONUC.
In a letter to the military judge in Bunia, Maj John Penza, Kahwa forbade his lawyer, Modeste Magene, from representing him before any of the courts. Subsequently, the military tribunal assigned Joseph Lobi from Kisangani, capital of Orientale Province, to represent Kahwa. Karine Bapinga of the Belgian NGO, Lawyers Without Borders, represented the victims' families.
After the ruling, Kahwa said he would appeal against the sentence before the military court in Kisangani.
"Even though he has been charged, we will await the ruling in Kisangani before he can be replaced as head of the community," Mbitso said.