DRC tribunal sentences 25 soldiers to death for ‘fleeing the enemy’

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DRC soldiers ride in a vehicle in Mirangi, close to the town of Kibirizi, now controlled by M23 rebels in North Kivu province [File: Alexis Huguet/AFP]

Military court in Butembo set up as part of crackdown on soldiers fleeing M23 rebels as fighting rages in the east.

Twenty-five soldiers accused of fleeing fighting against M23 rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) have been sentenced to death.

The Butembo military court in North Kivu province handed the sentences down on Wednesday, deeming them guilty of fleeing the enemy, dissipation of war munitions and violation of orders.

“I find them guilty and sentence each of them to death,” said Colonel Kabeya Ya Hanu, president of the military court.

The tribunal was set up close to the scene of recent clashes between the Congolese army and M23 fighters with the aim of discouraging soldiers from fleeing the front line.

A total of 31 defendants, including 27 soldiers and four of their civilian wives, appeared before the military court during the one-day trial, said Jules Muvweko, one of the defence lawyers.

The four women were acquitted while one soldier was sentenced to 10 years’ jail for robbery. The verdict for the last soldier was unclear.

‘Weaken our military’

In early May, eight Congolese soldiers, including five officers, were sentenced to death in Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, for “cowardice” and “fleeing the enemy”.

Moise Hangi, a human rights activist, noted DRC’s government only recently lifted a moratorium on the death penalty that was in place since 2003.

“We are in danger of reaching the point where many military personnel are going to be candidates for this decision, rather than improving our security apparatus. This kind of decision will increasingly weaken our military and give more fear to those on all the front lines,” Hangi said.

Last week, M23 – the March 23 movement, which the United Nations claims is backed by Rwanda – seized several towns on the northern front of the conflict. Rwanda denies any involvement.

Its recent gains include the strategic town of Kanyabayonga, which is seen as a gateway to the major commercial centres of Butembo and Beni.

Faced with the combined might of the Rwandan army and M23, Congolese troops have repeatedly retreated without a fight, news reports say.

“Many units have less than half the number of soldiers they are supposed to have due to desertions and casualties,” said Jason Stearns, a former UN investigator who now runs the Congo Research Group at New York University. “Above all, there is a lack of accountability and morale.”

M23 has seized vast swaths of territory, almost completely encircling Goma, and killed scores of people. There are already 2.8 million displaced people in North Kivu, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

DR Congo’s mineral-rich east has been racked by fighting between both local and foreign-based armed groups for the past three decades, the conflict having spilled over from the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s.

Last March, the Congolese government lifted the moratorium on the death penalty that had been in force since 2003 in the country.

‘Every officer is afraid’

Successive Congolese governments and UN peacekeeping missions have struggled to quell violence in the east, where more than 100 armed groups are fighting over land and minerals, including rich deposits of gold and coltan, essential for making mobile phones.

Some have received backing from DRC’s eastern neighbours, which have a history of intervening in the region.

The eight officers convicted at a well-publicised court martial in May stared blankly as a colonel in a black beret declared them guilty of cowardice for abandoning their posts.

Defence lawyer Alexis Olenga rejected the charge, saying the battalion commander, Colonel Patient Mushengezi, was being treated in Goma for high blood pressure at the time, while his men left to replenish their ammunition when another unit failed to deliver the supplies.

A growing number of arrests is spreading fear and distrust in the military, army officers told Reuters news agency.

“Even our greatest fighters have been put in prison for mere rumours,” an unnamed military intelligence officer was quoted as saying. “Every officer who comes in is afraid.”Interactive_DRC_timeline of the conflict_REVISED

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES

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