Fighting Against Impunity in the DRC: Historic Conviction of an Armed Group Commander

A disguised victim testifies at the Habarugira trial in Goma, DRC.

By Anna Khalfaoui

“This is a historic decision,” ABA ROLI lawyer Mireille Kahatwa Amani said. “For the first time in the DRC, we finally see someone condemned for conscripting and using children in war.”

On February 1, 2019,  a military tribunal condemned a warlord for the war crimes of rape and of recruitment and use of child soldiers in Goma, the capital city of the North Kivu province in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The ABA ROLI lawyers who worked on this case secured a historic decision; it is the first time a court convicted  an individual for the conscription of child soldiers in the DRC. The conviction is another step in the DRC’s fight against impunity for sexual and gender-based violence.

As a result of the conviction, the former commander of the Nyatura rebels, Lieutenant Colonel Marcel Habarugira Rangira, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for war crimes of rape and conscription or use of child soldiers under the age of fifteen, under international law, and, under Congolese law, for violating orders and participating in an insurrectionary movement.

A number of victims of rape and former child soldiers were awarded reparations of 5,000 USD each. Habarugira was also discharged from the Congolese military as a result of his crimes.  

Before he defected, Habarugira was enrolled in the state’s armed forces, and he reached the rank of lieutenant colonel. When he left the military, he created his own rebel group, the “Nyatura intégré,” which included over 800 men. Throughout 2012-2014, Habarugira terrorized the territory of Masisi in the eastern DRC; under his command, dozens of children were abducted for his army; women were kidnapped and raped; and entire villages were looted. During the pre-trial fact-finding missions supported by ABA ROLI,  over 130 victims of rape and conscription were interviewed.

Despite numerous testimonies, the charges of sexual slavery against Habarugira were dropped, a disappointing decision for the women and girls who were kidnapped and repeatedly raped by the Nyatura rebels.

A 14-year-old girl shared with MONUSCO, the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC, and a partner of ABA ROLI:

“I was cooking and cleaning in the house of the commander, but he only gave me soap if I had sex with him. He forced me to have sex three times. I tried to escape but I was caught.”

However, the  judge did not acknowledge Habarugira’s role in these accounts of sexual slavery because victims were unable to testify in court. The judge’s egregious refusal fails to consider the societal, security, and logistical hurdles that often prevent victims from testifying in court. This is particularly true for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence who must not only recount their traumatic experiences before a tribunal, but also do so with little to no protection, as well as with the negative stigma associated with sexual assault.

Nadine Sayiba, another ABA ROLI lawyer who worked on the case, acknowledged the length of time between the crimes, dating back to 2012, and the start of the trial in 2018. This delay made it difficult for lawyers and members of law enforcement to gather the proofs necessary to secure a conviction, as well as mobilize survivors of sexual violence.

The tribunal recognized the plight of several women and former child soldiers and ordered reparations. But, for a judgment to be executed in the DRC, individuals must first pay a proportion of the reparation awarded to them, which is set at 3 percent, as well as other prohibitive judicial costs. For many victims this is unattainable. Thus, in most cases, unless these costs are shouldered by an organization, the victims will rarely receive any compensation.   

The Habarugira decision illustrates the complexity of fighting impunity for serious violations of human rights in the DRC. This decision is both a victory for its historic conviction for the conscription and use of child soldiers and a testament to the difficulties of obtaining justice for victims, in particular for victims of sexual and gender-based violence.

Anna Khalfaoui is the Satter Fellow at ABA ROLI in the DRC where she works on access to justice and atrocity prevention.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABA ROLI.