Congo colonel gets 20 years after rape trial

As the uniformed soldiers on trial sat nearby, a newly married bride flung her torn and bloodied clothing onto the floor of the makeshift courtroom. She swayed in her chair, as if to comfort herself as she recounted the brutal rape she'd survived.

One mother of six threw herself to her knees and raised her arms to heaven, crying to God and the military judges to grant her some peace. Other survivors spoke so softly it was hard to hear them in the torridly hot courtroom over the sniffling and whimpers of babies, and the occasional drumming of an equatorial thunderstorm on the tin roof.

On Monday, a mobile military court convicted an army colonel of crimes against humanity, a landmark verdict in this Central African country where aid groups say thousands are brutally raped each year and where impunity prevails for the soldiers and militia groups who terrorize civilians.

The verdict came only after prosecutors and lawyers were ferried to this remote corner of eastern Congo, only accessible from the provincial capital by helicopter or a nearly nine-hour arduous journey by road.

Yet even as Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi was sentenced to 20 years — the first time a commanding officer has been tried for such a crime — the women who told their stories feared that not all the perpetrators have faced justice. The 11 on trial were the only ones who had been identified after the New Year's Day attacks.

"Most of the rapists are still right here in our village. If we go to the river for water, we get raped; if we go to the fields for food, we get raped; if we go to the market to sell our goods, we get raped. Our lives are filled with danger. There is no peace," said one woman as she nursed her baby.

Asked if she had been raped before, the woman just looked down at the baby in her lap and tears fell from her eyes.

Rape long has been used as a brutal weapon of war in eastern Congo, where soldiers and various militias use sexual violence to intimidate, punish and control the population. The country suffered back-to-back civil wars starting in the late 1990s, and its east is still brutalized by a myriad of armed groups.

At least 8,300 rapes were reported in 2009 alone, and aid workers say the true toll is much higher. The victims have even included a month-old baby boy and elderly women, and even the biggest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world of 18,000 troops has been unable to end the violence.

The mobile court of military judges and pro bono lawyers that tried Kibibi and the others was paid for by George Soros' Open Society Initiative and aided by several agencies including the American Bar Association, Lawyers Without Borders and the U.N. Mission to Congo.

Activists said they hoped it would serve as a warning to others who are brutally attacking civilians with impunity.

"Unquestionably, Lt. Col. Kibibi and his soldiers are more than a little stunned to find themselves on trial before this groundbreaking domestic mobile court. If word about the court is spread around the country, it could have an enormous impact on deterring future crimes, now that the rule of law is finally being enforced domestically, to at least some extent," said Kelly D. Askin of Open Society Justice Initiative.

But even as these soldiers stood trial, local aid groups said new reports of rapes were emerging, this time women believed to have been attacked by Rwandan Hutu rebels.

And arrests and prosecutions for the numerous brutal attacks on villages in eastern Congo remain rare. Following the rapes of more than 300 people last year, the only man to be arrested in connection with the case was handed over by his fellow fighters.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Kibibi, who was accused of ordering his troops to attack the village of Fizi on New Year's Day where doctors later treated 62 women for rape. One woman testified that Kibibi himself raped her for 40 minutes.

As the defendants were being led away in handcuffs, hundreds of people jeered at them, booed and shook their fists. Some shouted, "Kibibi! You thought you could get away with this! Now you are going to jail!" and "You must pay for your crimes!"

Kibibi, 46, who is married with eight children, was convicted of four counts of crimes against humanity but will serve no more than 20 years in prison. His wife came to his trial each day, where she listened to testimony with their baby in tow.

Kibibi denies all the charges and says the court testimony by his bodyguards was all part of a plot to denigrate him. Lawyer Alfred Maisha described his client as a "valiant hero" who had served in the army since 1984 and had put his life at risk many times in the defense of the country. Maisha said many of the troops under Kibibi's command were poorly trained and included former members of rebel and militia groups.

Witnesses said the soldiers descended in a fury upon the village of Fizi, 35 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baraka on an escarpment of verdant mountains covered in banana trees. Residents there had stoned a soldier to death who had been involved in an altercation with a local shop owner.

The soldiers then smashed down doors and went house-to-house in Fizi, pillaging, beating and raping, from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following day, witnesses said.

The 49 women who testified about those attacks are to receive up to $10,000 each in compensation from the government as part of the verdict handed down Monday — double the amount given to victims in previous cases. Unspecified other damages must be paid for victims' "humiliation, degradation of their health, social stigmatization, risk of divorce, and possibility of HIV," presiding judge Col. Fredy Mukendi ordered Monday.

Military prosecutor Col. Laurent Mutata Luaba had demanded death sentences for Kibibi and the officers accused in the Fizi case and 20-year sentences for the rank-and-file. He said the men had "behaved like wild beasts," terrorizing and attacking the defenseless civilians they had orders to protect.

Three of Kibibi's officers received the same sentences, and five others got lesser sentences. One man was acquitted and another ultimately will be tried in juvenile court.

Many complained that the sentences handed down Monday were not harsh enough.

"We are happy that this trial has been held, but we are not happy with the result," said Oscar Muzaliwa, 26. "The sentences are too low. (They) should be put to death for what they did."

The total number of victims from the New Year's Day rapes will never be known. The women who testified in court were identified only as Female 1 to Female 49, amid fears for their security and efforts to lessen the strong social stigma associated with rape in Congo.

The horrors recounted mounted up over four days of testimony by the women, their physical and emotional pain almost tangible, hanging in the heavy, humid air.

A 35-year-old woman detailed how she was beaten with rifle butts and fists before five soldiers threw her to the ground, tore off her clothes and took turns raping her, even as she vomited, urinated and defecated. The soldiers took all the money she had been saving for more than a year — 60,000 Congolese francs ($650).

A white-haired grandmother who doesn't know her age described being who beaten up and raped, from front and back, by 12 soldiers, in front of her husband and children.

Women testified that they later spent up to three weeks hiding in the nearby forest with their children, building little grass huts, and foraging for berries and roots instead of returning to Fizi.

The women's statements were then recounted in an open court where hundreds of people, mainly men and boys, gathered under a burning sun.

The other victims would not testify, fearful of being shunned by their husbands and community, or of reprisals by the military.

Others are still coming forward, including one elderly victim who only emerged Sunday from the forest with a broken rib. Her face remained swollen out of shape seven weeks later.