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November 01, 2009

DRC’s Mobile Courts Strike a Blow Against Rape and Related Crimes

November 2009

October 29 marked an important achievement in the fight to end rape and sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). As part of a mobile court program operated by the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI), a military tribunal in Kalima, Maniema Province, sentenced a military police officer to 12 months imprisonment and imposed a $1,000 fine for his role in facilitating the escape of an alleged rape perpetrator. As a result of his actions, the alleged perpetrator, accused of raping a two-year-old girl, remains at large.

The court decision, which imposed secondary liability and sentenced an accessory who was not a direct perpetrator of the rape, represents a willingness by the military to hold its own accountable for any role they may play in the country’s horrific levels of sexual violence. The case was the first ABA ROLI mobile court held in Kalima and its resulting conviction and sentence have sent a message to the police and army that impunity for rape—or for the facilitation of an alleged rapist’s escape—will not be tolerated.

A significant factor in this legal victory is the existence of the country’s mobile courts system. DRC established the system to enable judges, prosecutors and magistrates to travel to remote, areas, where rape victims have little access to courts. The country’s rape crisis has been fueled by perpetrators who, until recently, have faced little or no risk of incarceration, even when victims can identify their assailants. The mobile courts are among the Congolese government’s efforts to eradicate the crisis. Other steps include the passage of the 2006 sexual violence law and subsequent moves to strengthen the judiciary, allowing the military justice system to accept a greater number of sexual violence cases.

Military justice officials are now more aware of the crisis and its society-wide repercussions and they appear more willing to try cases of sexual violence. Yet, the military justice system has a significant amount of work ahead to hold its ranks—both ordinary soldiers and high-ranking officers—accountable for their sexual crimes. The conviction and sentencing of the military police officer in Kalima is one example of progress being made within the military justice system. The fact that the officer was sentenced to jail and a hefty monetary penalty (to be paid to the victim’s family) is significant, considering he was not the perpetrator of the rape.

ABA ROLI’s mobile court program is supported by a $5.2M grant from the Dutch government. Throughout the eastern part of the country, ABA ROLI operates several programs that partner with Congolese police, lawyers, judges and psychologists committed to bringing perpetrators to justice and to rehabilitating survivors. Through ABA ROLI’s efforts, rape victims are increasingly electing to testify against their assailants despite fears of retribution and cultural norms that prescribe silence. From 2008–2009, ABA ROLI assisted with 441 rape cases. Of these, 178 cases have been filed with police and 79 with the court. These cases have resulted in 54 trials and 36 convictions thus far.

The increasing number of successful prosecutions has defied the predictions of skeptics, who claimed that rampant corruption within the justice sector or plain indifference about the crime of rape would prevent successful prosecutions.  This success is attributable to the ability of committed Congolese professionals, from a variety of disciplines, to work together to address the crisis. 

To learn more about our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at <[email protected]>.