Landmark Child Rape Case in Congo Goes to Court

Kavumu trial marks turning point for justice and accountability

Women walk through the village of Kavumu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. | PHR Photo

Today, in the small village of Kavumu in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), 18 defendants are set to go on trial for the systematic rape of 46 young children over a period of four years. The case represents a landmark step in the fight against rape in Congo, a country marked by widespread sexual violence for decades. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) — along with TRIAL International, Panzi Hospital, and a host of Congolese partners — has worked to ensure evidence as well as survivors’ testimony will come to light in an open justice proceeding.

“A few years ago, a trial like this would have been unthinkable,” said Karen Naimer, director of PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones. “For too long, perpetrators of rape in Congo have believed they were invincible, shielded from accountability because the country lacked the forensic and legal infrastructure to prosecute difficult cases of sexual violence. Slowly, signal cases are beginning to demonstrate that impunity is not inevitable. Alongside our national and international partners, PHR has worked to ensure doctors, nurses, police officers, judges, lawyers, and community members have the tools and expertise they require to effectively secure justice.”

Absolute desperation

Nestled in the country’s eastern South Kivu province, Kavumu has been overwhelmed by the abduction, rape, and mutilation of at least 46 young children, some as young as eight months old. The pattern emerged in April 2013, when a five-year-old girl was admitted to Dr. Denis Mukwege’s Panzi Hospital in nearby Bukavu with significant injuries related to sexual violence. Over the course of many months, as more patients with similar injuries presented at Panzi Hospital, it became clear this was not an isolated case. Children were apparently being spirited from their homes in the dead of night, raped and often mutilated, and left in the fields outside the village. As the toll mounted over months and years, the community’s suffering, the hospital’s pleas, and the urgent appeals of human rights organizations were met with silence and inaction by government authorities.

“I think it’s hard for people to comprehend the absolute desperation this campaign of rape inflicted on the people of Kavumu,” said Susannah Sirkin, PHR’s director of international policy and partnerships. “There’s an abject terror that comes from seeing a community’s youngest and most vulnerable be subjected to such unthinkable violence that has continued unchecked for years. No matter the outcome of the trial, the justice process is a clear signal to communities across Congo and indeed across the region that such violence is intolerable and must be met with a coordinated response from the medical, legal, and law enforcement communities, as well as civil society, which demands the political will to prosecute these cases and support the survivors and their communities.”

After the first cases were identified in 2013, PHR convened its local partners to look for patterns, collect information and evidence, and establish a working group alongside the UN mission in Congo’s Joint Human Rights Office, civil society activists, and medical and legal professionals. PHR’s medical, legal, and justice experts helped analyze records of the case, categorize injuries to help establish a pattern of criminality, and assisted in the collection of physical and psychological evidence.

PHR legal and justice expert Georges Kuzma and a police investigator interview a Kavumu resident about alleged perpetrators. | PHR Photo

A priority case

In March 2016, PHR and its partners urged Congolese authorities to deem the crimes a “priority case” and pursue these crimes as a single matter, constituting crimes against humanity. In March 2016, military justice assumed jurisdiction of the case and began its investigation. In June of that year, after intense pressure from national and international advocates and media, Congolese national authorities arrested several individuals believed to be responsible for these crimes, as well as a string of murders in the area.

“This process has been painstaking, and it would not have resulted in the trial we’re witnessing today had it not been for the Congolese experts who risked their lives to ensure these survivors would have a chance to obtain justice,” said PHR legal and justice expert Georges Kuzma. “These first responders have endured threats to their lives and the lives of their families, yet they insisted on doing the arduous work of collecting evidence and advocating on behalf of survivors. It’s a testament to the commitment that health professionals and other partners in Congo have to ensuring crimes of sexual violence are effectively prosecuted.”

The 18 suspects standing trial, including a local member of parliament, face charges of murder, as well as broader charges of crimes against humanity by rape, crimes against humanity by murder, and the organization of an armed group. The trial is expected to last three weeks and is being in conducted in a mobile court, a mechanism in which Congo’s military justice system conducts public trials in the communities where crimes have been committed. Judges are expected to hear testimony and will consider monetary and other reparations for survivors.

“When we started the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones in 2011, our goal was to ensure that sound, unimpeachable evidence would be used to prosecute offenders of horrific crimes,” said PHR’s executive director, Donna McKay. “While we don’t know exactly how this trial will proceed, the fact that it is happening sends a signal to perpetrators not just in Congo, not just in central and eastern Africa, but globally that human rights advocates, empowered by science and medicine, will not let your crimes go unpunished.”

PHR’s Work in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has witnessed some of the world’s highest levels of sexual violence over the last two decades, and, as a result, has been a focus of global initiatives to prevent, stop, and punish rape in armed conflict.

PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones launched a training and advocacy initiative in eastern DRC in 2011 to help improve skills for forensic documentation and the collection and preservation of evidence of sexual violence. Over the last six years, we have trained more than 1,100 clinicians, police officers, lawyers, and judges in the DRC to collect and document forensic evidence of sexual violence to support local prosecutions of these crimes.

A typical home in Kavumu with a fabric door. Victims were often abducted in the middle of the night and raped in nearby fields. | PHR Photo

A Timeline of the Kavumu Cases

In April 2013, PHR was notified of a series of sexual violence cases coming into Panzi Hospital in Bukavu. Young children were presenting with significant abdominal and pelvic injuries related to sexual violence. In May of that year, a PHR medical advisor worked alongside doctors in Panzi’s sexual violence clinic to conduct the first forensic medical evaluations of survivors.

In the subsequent months, PHR’s network of medical and legal experts convened and traveled to Kavumu to gather more information on the emerging pattern of cases. Georges Kuzma, PHR’s police and justice expert based in Bukavu, led PHR’s efforts to track the cases. More than a dozen cases emerged with a similar pattern: children kidnapped at night from families’ houses and then assaulted nearby. By April 2014, PHR began working with the UN mission in Congo’s Joint Human Rights Office to establish a working group to investigate these cases as a single criminal campaign, with PHR taking on the role of principal technical advisor.

School children walk on a paved road outside of Kavumu. | PHR Photo

PHR’s medical and justice experts began assisting in collecting data gathered by the provincial police as well as Panzi Hospital, analyzing forensic medical forms and records to identify similar cases. Working alongside local investigators previously trained by PHR, PHR experts put together a full case review in May 2014, and in June of that year organized a crime scene investigation. Meanwhile, members of civil society organized demonstrations against child rape and accompanied security patrols in the community.

By August 2014, officials had identified 26 cases fitting the overall pattern of attacks. PHR continued to provide technical support to investigators. PHR’s expert medical consultant, Muriel Volpellier, MA, MD, trained health professionals in the sexual violence unit at Panzi Hospital on how to conduct comprehensive forensic medical evaluations — and how to document their findings using a form developed by PHR. She mentored the two clinicians responsible for responding to the Kavumu cases.

In late 2014, PHR facilitated contact between civil society leaders in Kavumu and the DRC president’s special representative on sexual and gender-based violence, Jeannine Mabunda Lioko Mudiayi, based in the country’s capital of Kinshasa more than 1,000 miles away. At the same time, the Congolese national police appointed a former PHR trainee to lead the sexual violence unit. In November 2014, a PHR delegation traveled to Kinshasa to meet with diplomats and raise concern about the Kavumu cases.

PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones

Kavumu receives international attention

After PHR and partners began calling attention to these cases in multiple international venues, journalists began reporting on the Kavumu story. By July 2015, a total of 33 cases had been identified. PHR continued working closely with health professionals at Panzi Hospital and among civil society leaders in Kavumu on the preservation of biological evidence to be used in the event the cases moved forward. Under the leadership of a PHR-trained police officer, the investigation was renewed in the last quarter of 2015.

The Congolese police sexual violence unit deployed two new investigators to Kavumu in November 2015. Evidence emerged of the involvement of a provincial deputy, Frederic Batumike, allegedly the leader of an armed militia. As a parliamentarian, he had some degree of criminal immunity. By March 2016, PHR and partners approached military justice officials and convinced them to deem the matter a “priority case” and to pursue charges of crimes against humanity because the patterns of violence had widespread and systematic elements. Military justice officials assumed jurisdiction over the matter because militia members were allegedly involved and because the military justice system is well-positioned to pursue charges of crimes against humanity under international standards.

Also in March 2016, a PHR delegation traveled to Kavumu to meet with civil society leaders and families of survivors. PHR’s Susannah Sirkin published an op-ed on the cases with CNN. In subsequent months, political pressure began to grow to revoke Batumike’s immunity and urge the prosecution of the Kavumu cases. In June of that year, military justice officials arrested Batumike along with dozens of suspected militants in Bukavu and Kavumu. They were held in Bukavu Central Prison and charged with crimes against humanity by rape, crimes against humanity by murder, organization of an armed group, and other charges. Since the arrests, there have been no reports of similar rapes in the area.

In a major setback in late 2016, unknown assailants burned down the Kavumu Justice Hall, destroying numerous records on the Kavumu cases from 2013. Nonetheless, by year’s end, PHR, TRIAL, Panzi Hospital, and the UN Joint Human Rights Office in Congo launched a comprehensive review of the physical and psychological evidence being gathered for trials. As of December 2016, there were 42 total cases.

Captain David Kazadi Nzengu (standing left), a military prosecutor; Dr. Désiré Alumeti (seated), a pediatric surgeon at Panzi Hospital; and Honorata Uvoya (standing right), an officer in the Congolese police’s Women and Child Protection Unit. All three trained in best forensic practices with PHR. | Platon for The People’s Portfolio

Putting together a case

At the end of 2016, PHR pediatric psychological consultant Dr. Jacqueline Fall and a Panzi psychologist conducted three dozen interviews of young survivors and worked together to document the psychological findings. PHR set up a secure video link to the interviews so that investigators could observe the proceedings. PHR expert medical consultant Dr. Volpellier and a physician at Panzi Hospital together examined survivors to establish additional medical findings and take DNA samples, which were then transferred into police custody. The Panzi physician took the lead and Dr. Volpellier provided support in writing up the forensic medical findings for the court.

In early 2017, PHR experts analyzed mobile phone data to provide mapping information to military justice officials preparing their case. PHR’s police and justice expert, Georges Kuzma, traveled to Bukavu Central Prison to take forensic photos of 14 alleged perpetrators and to collect DNA samples to pass along to military prosecutors. By early summer, Panzi Hospital transmitted its final medical findings from the December 2016 case review.

In September 2017, the case was scheduled to go to trial under case number RMP1653/BMG/NSK/WAV/2016. PHR and partners worked to organize a mobile court setting at a local church. Proceedings began in November 2017 against 18 alleged perpetrators with 46 victims and 20 witnesses (though many of the survivors will not need to testify). PHR and partners are set to observe the full proceedings. As many of the defendants still have sympathizers in the region, security is expected to be heightened.

With the trial now getting underway, PHR continues to express our hope that the families of Kavumu can obtain justice for these crimes and that the community can ultimately live in peace. We also believe that the extraordinary collaboration between the medical and legal communities, as well as the involvement of national and international NGOs, can sustain a system of effective response to prevent or support investigations into future incidents of sexual violence.

An interview room in Kavumu for recording survivor testimonies to be entered as evidence in the upcoming trial. | PHR Photo

Originally published at physiciansforhumanrights.org.