Soldiers jailed for mass rape

Seven soldiers in the Congolese army have been sentenced to life in prison for crimes against humanity, including the mass rape of at least 119 women in the northwestern province of Equateur. This was the first sentence against the country's military personnel for crimes against humanity.

However, the military garrison court in Songo Mboyo, 600 km northeast of the provincial capital Mbandaka, acquitted five other soldiers of similar charges.

The convicted soldiers committed the crimes in December 2003 at Songo Mboyo. The soldiers initially served in the former rebel movement known as Mouvement Pour la liberation du Congo (MLC). The MLC has since joined the transitional government and is now a political party. Among the charges the soldiers faced were: massive rape, crimes against humanity, robbery, incitation to arm, military plot, dissipation of weapons and ammunitions, and usurpation of command. The court heard that some of the women raped were younger than 18 years.

The court also ordered the Congolese government, which it said was "jointly responsible", to compensate the victims of the soldiers. It directed that a family of a rape victim who died following the attack be paid US $10,000, $5,000 for rape survivors and other victims; and damages and interest of $200 to $500 to families who the soldiers robbed.

The decision by the military court validated the statute of Rome that created the International Criminal Court in July 2002. The statute classifies rape as a crime against humanity.

Luc Henkinbrandt, an official from the human rights division of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC), said: "MONUC encourages additional military investigations to help prosecute other military personnel who have not yet been arrested in the framework of this case."

"This [court's decision] is a significant step which will help advance the fight against impunity, particularly against sexual violence in this country," Henkinbrant added.

According to MONUC, a group of inspectors from its human rights division went to Equateur Province in April 2004 to conduct investigations against the alleged rape on a massive scale. The team established that in the night of 21 December 2003, the Congolese army battalion based in Songo Mboyo, which were actually MLC troops, had raped 119 women and girls. The battalion rebelled against its commanders whom they had accused of keeping part of their salaries. The soldiers then robbed almost all the houses in the villages of Songo-Mboyo and Bongandanga.