On Thursday, September 1st, I arrived at the military tribunal of Uvira, based on an invitation from the head magistrate, Captain Issokelo Didier. In terms of what I focus on (the fight against sexual violence), there was not too much to learn. However, I found some aspects of the experience to be quite interesting:
-While waiting in the courtroom for the judges to arrive, I struck up a conversation with the three prisoners whose cases were to be heard that day. The three men, decked out in faded orange jumpsuits, were accused of being members of an “insurrectionist movement”, the Mai Mai; these accusations were the basis for their appearance in a military court as opposed to a civilian court. They had all been arrested in December 2009, and they said that this day in court was only the second time they had appeared before a judge since being arrested.
-The soldiers assigned to guarding the prisoners were a raggedy, if friendly, group of individuals. I struck up a conversation with a soldier named Jeannot, a miniscule and jocular soldier with several missing front teeth and a battered and dented AK-style assault rifle. I asked Jeannot when he joined the army, and he told me he had first joined as a soldier with the RCD in 1998. I asked him how old he was.
“I was born in 1984,” he said. If what he told me was the truth, this meant he had joined the army when he was fourteen. A year younger than me, and yet Jeannot had already marched as a soldier through 13 years of conflict.
Another soldier, Sergeant Alain, told me that he had joined as a kadogo (child soldier) with Laurent Kabila and the AFDL in 1996; again, he did not look that much older than myself.
I asked the soldiers where they were from. Jeannot told me he was a Mubembe from Fizi Territory. I found many of the soldiers were from Fizi, but there were quite a number from all over the Congo, including Bas-Congo, Nord Kivu, and Katanga. Indeed, this group of soldiers appeared to be the most diverse group of Congolese I had ever seen, from the short Babembe to the towering Katangans. They spoke with each other in an interesting mix of Kiswahili, French, and Lingala. Normally, I do not interact with Congolese soldiers, since under different circumstances they might harass me or worse, but this time it was interesting to see the ordinary FARDC foot soldier “up close”.
-The three military judges were a panel of stern-looking, stern-talking FARDC captains who seemed to speak to the prisoners only in admonishments, alternating between French and Kiswahili. During the court recess, all of them lit up noxious cigarettes, which explained the generally stale, sour odor in the courtroom. When I asked the judges about their qualifications, they simply shrugged their shoulders and said that the military had assigned them to this post.
-All three prisoners had the same lawyer representing them, and after a few opening statements, the lawyer disappeared. After a while, the judges had to call a recess, since the prisoners had no legal representation; since their conviction would carry the death penalty, the judges decided that the trial could proceed no further until the three had a trained jurist present on their behalf. The three prisoners complained that the lawyer was charging them a lot of money ($1500), but doing little work. Since no one of them could afford to hire a lawyer himself, they had pooled their resources to hire one to represent all three of them.
-When I asked Capt. Didier if the death penalty had ever been carried out in Uvira against soldiers convicted of “supporting insurrection”, he shook his head no. He told me that if someone is convicted and sentenced to die, he immediately writes a letter to President Kabila asking for amnesty on behalf of the prisoner.
-According to the new rules set out for FARDC military justice, a FARDC officer can only be tried and convicted by officers of his own rank or greater. Thus, if anyone above Capt. Didier’s rank were being investigated (say, a colonel), a group of higher-ranking judges would have to come down from Bukavu to render a judicial decision in the case.
-Capt. Didier complained quite a bit about the lack of resources allocated to him and his team at the Auditorat. He told me that if an investigator opens a dossier in Shabunda, it may take up to a month for the dossier to arrive in Uvira. I asked if he had pleaded to his superiors for more resources, and he claimed that he had, but to no avail. Capt. Didier also claimed he did not have the resources to hold more military courts or open much-needed parquets in parts of Sud Kivu far away from the tribunal in Uvira. When I look at the dismal state of military justice in Sud Sud Kivu, I wonder about all the resources that numerous organizations (United Nations, European Union, etc) have dedicated to stabilization and security sector reform, and whether any of it is reaching our far-flung corner of the Congo.
Overall, the overwhelming feeling I got from attending this trial was frustration with the Congolese judicial process, both civilian and military. However, it was an eye-opening experience, and I learned quite a bit.
One wonders if the landmark trial and conviction of Col. Kibibi Mutware earlier this year was a start of a new trend or simply an irregular blip in a region fraught with impunity for members of armed groups. Not much of what I saw and heard in my experience with the Uvira Auditorat supported the former. I am willing to give Congolese military justice the benefit of the doubt, but I also believe it is about time both the Congolese government and their international partners take a closer look at what is going on.
If you are interested more in the Congolese justice system, please refer to one of my blogs from 2009, where I visited the Tribunal de la Paix, a court where civil cases are heard. If you want to read about community justice and mediation, here is a blog about a case heard at the Comite de Mediation et Conciliation in Luvungi.
Posted By WALTER JAMES
Posted Sep 5th, 2011