DRC: now impunity is tackled in Kasai too
Geneva, 10 March 2021. The first trial brought by TRIAL International opens today in Central Kasai (Democratic Republic of the Congo). In a region regularly described as lawless, where impunity is the norm, the trial of two militiamen accused of international crimes sends a clear message: the road ahead is long, but justice can prevail.
In the spring of 2017, several villages in the territory of Kazumba (Central Kasai) were attacked by a militia with ties to the armed insurrection of Kamuina Nsapu. Murder, pillage, and torture were committed against hundreds of civilians in retaliation for their refusal to collaborate with this armed group. The group’s commander, Nsumbu Katende, is now being prosecuted for war crimes and terrorism. One of Katende’s militiamen is also on trial.
“We must break out of the fatalist vision according to which the violence in Kasai will never be punished” declares Guy Mushiata, National Coordinator for TRIAL International in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). “The Congolese judicial system has already proven in other provinces that warlords are not above the law. Now we want to change mentalities in Kasai, and help rebuild the rule of law there.”
Kasai, infamous for its mass crimes
Located in southern Congo, the Kasai region is tragically known for the violent conflict that opposed the armed insurrection of Kamuina Nsapu and the government of Kinshasa. Between 2016 and 2019 the civilian population was caught between the countless armed factions and endured mass crimes, most of which are still going unpunished. In March 2017, Kasai made international headlines when two United Nations experts, Michael Sharp (USA) and Zaida Catalan (Sweden), as well as the four Congolese nationals who were accompanying them, were kidnapped and murdered.
The trial that opens today is indirectly connected to these crimes because commander Nsumbu Katende and his accomplice participated in the same insurrectional movement as the individuals accused of murdering Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan: the Kamuina Nsapu. Moreover, the crimes at the center of today’s trial occurred two weeks before the two experts were kidnapped. Although the trial does not aim to shed light on these particular murders – which are the focus of another pending trial – the case seriously weakens the impunity of armed militias and could open the door to other prosecutions.
Rapid progress after years of stagnation
This trial begins just over a year after TRIAL International opened its first project in Kasai. It was through conversations with local actors that the organization became aware of the case. In September 2020, TRIAL International facilitated a documentation mission, during which nearly 300 victims were identified. Thanks to this additional investigative work, the prosecutor considered the evidence sufficient to close his investigation and present the case to the military court in Kananga.
“We are delighted with the rapid evolution of the case” comments Daniele Perissi, Head of the Great Lakes Program. “It is the result of an excellent collaboration between the judicial authorities of Kasai Central and its local and international partners.” And it proves to skeptics that even in the most challenging regions, impunity for mass crimes can be brought to an end.
TRIAL International collaborates in Kasai with Physicians for Human Rights, an NGO using medical evidence to document human rights abuses. Their joint project in Kasai aims to strengthen access to justice through a combination of legal and medical expertise. This project is generously funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida.