The parents of a group of little Congolese girls who were savagely raped during a three-year reign of terror in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) took the stand today in a landmark trial, where Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has provided technical support in gathering forensic evdience.
Twelve parents, their identities hidden by head-to-toe coverings and voice modification technology, told the court from behind a screen how their daughters had been dragged from their homes in the middle of the night, raped, and dumped near their homes or in fields surrounding the village of Kavumu.
At one point, a child survivor who was sitting behind the witness screen with her mother broke into sobs as the mother, identified only as P17, recounted how she had found the little girl lying on the ground in front of the family’s home. The girl was escorted outside by a court psychologist.
Eighteen defendants, including Congolese lawmaker Frederic Batumike, are charged with kidnapping, raping, and mutilating 46 girls – some of them as young as eight months old – over a three-year period ending in 2016 with the arrest of Batumike and his alleged colleagues.
Batumike, who allegedly heads a militia that is accused of carrying out the rapes, had earlier tried to hold up proceedings by seeking the recusal of two of the military judges trying the case, but the request was rejected by an independent court. Batumike, who is also accused of having ordered the murders of two opponents, then said he would no longer cooperate with the court, citing his right to remain silent, and instructed his attorneys to stand down. The court ordered him to testify and appointed him court attorneys.
PHR has worked closely for years with local medical professionals, police and military investigators, and lawyers to gather evidence of the rapes. During the trial, PHR and local and international partners successfully advocated to protect the identities of witnesses and survivors by seeking permission from the court to use voice-modification technology, to be identified by a number instead of by name, to testify behind a screened-off area, and to testify in a closed court that would not be open to the public. PHR also worked with partners to seek the court’s approval not to retraumatize the child survivors by requiring them to testify in court, relying instead on video testimony of the children documented by PHR and its partners.
The expertise of PHR and local police partners was also called upon to examine cell phone records as a means of establishing that the 18 defendants were part of a structured group, whose actions could be considered as organized and systematic.
Many of the accused come from Kavumu. The mobile court, a mechanism for allowing trials to take place in the communities in which crimes occurred, last week traveled with some of the defendants to neighborhoods in Kavumu where the rapes took place; there, former neighbors recognized the accused men, countering the men’s claims that they had never lived in the area and did not know each other.
Proving that the defendants not only knew each other but were part of an organized militia is a critical part of the prosecution’s case.
The proceedings will continue through next week.