How the mighty fall: Trial of Sheka and consorts in DRC
Goma/Geneva, 20 November 2020 – for immediate release. The verdict is nearing for the warlord Ntabo Ntaberi, better known by his nom de guerre Sheka, and his three co-accused. After over a year and a half of trial and several more months of deliberation, the four accomplices face a life sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A resounding message as Sheka’s former wingman, Guidon Shimiray, could himself be brought to justice.
The lengthy trial of Ntabo Ntaberi alias Sheka, the infamous commander of the militia Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC), is coming to an end. Last August, Defense and Prosecution have presented their closing statements. The Prosecutor has requested a life sentence. Now the judges will have to adjudicate the guilt of the four accused for mass crimes committed in North Kivu between 2010 and 2014. The verdict is expected on Monday 23 November 2020.
Jules Ruhunemungu, Project Coordinator at Avocats sans Frontières (ASF), highlights that the participation and courage of victims have been key to the trial. “Their contribution has been a central element of the lawyers’ arguments to support the allegations against the accused. We must commend the civil parties’ will to overcome their fear and break the silence in order to fight impunity in DRC.”
Past crimes, present crimes
The international community has closely followed the trial of Sheka, and the verdict will no doubt be widely covered by the international and Congolese media. The decision is all the more important because Sheka’s former right-hand man within the militia Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) and now one of the most feared warlords in the region, could soon be sitting in the dock too.
Flashback: in 2014, rivalry between Sheka and his wingman Guidon Shimiray led to a scission of the NDC. Since then, factions of the militia fought against each other until Sheka’s surrender to the authorities in 2017, and subsequent indictment. To this day, Guidon Shimiray and his men continue to terrorize the populations of North Kivu.
But the days of impunity could soon be over for Shimiray too. On 8 July 2020, an official statement from the NDC removed him from his rank. He is already subject to an arrest warrant since June 2019. Could Sheka’s former rival be facing justice next?
“The parallel between Sheka and Guidon Shimiray is evident”, confirms Elsa Taquet, a Legal Advisor at TRIAL International who has worked with the victims’ lawyers in the case. “Both were so high up the ladder of the NDC that they were thought to be untouchable. The trial that has just ended proves that Sheka is not above the law, no more than Shimiray who will also, one day, have to answer for his deeds.”
Putting an end to the vicious circle of violence
How to explain this repetition of history? Many armed militias in North Kivu start as self-defense groups to fight other militias or even DRC’s regular army, the FARDC, whose men have, at times, also committed crimes against civilians and their possessions. Thus, the same people who are the victims one day may take up the arms the next day… and start committing atrocities too. This is how the vicious circle of violence is perpetuated and reinforced.
During the trial, Sheka portrayed himself as the protector of civilians in Walikale and Masisi. But the methods of his militia tell a different story: mass rape, sexual enslavement, enlistment of child soldiers, mutilations and inhumane treatment of ethnic Hundes and Hutus, etc. In total, thousands of civilians have lived in fear for over four years.
According to Patient Iraguha, Senior Legal Advisor for TRIAL International in DRC, only the Congolese State can put an end to this escalation: “Civilians should not have to defend themselves, it is the duty of the authorities to guarantee their safety. This is why the State of DRC is also accused in the trial against Sheka: it has not done everything in its power to prevent the NDC’s atrocities.”
“Is Congolese justice being put to the test?” asks Dominique Kamuandu, Program Coordinator at ASF. “This trial could prove to sceptics that a judiciary answer to grave human rights violations is possible. We hope that the court will uphold international standards up to the very end and will meet the victims’ expectations on fair trial principles.”
The verdict will be read on Monday 23 November from 9am at the military court of justice in Goma (Camp Katindo).