Washington, DC — If Congo and the international community are to learn anything productive from the Minova trial, they will look beyond its verdict. The devil - and the value - is in the details.
Embarking on a renewed peace process, Congo just completed one of its first tests of war crimes accountability: the prosecution of army officers for rape and other war crimes perpetrated in the South Kivu town of Minova. The result is mixed. Of the 39 defendants, 14 were acquitted, 22 sentenced to 10 or 20 years in prison, and two in perpetuity.
Only two were convicted of rape, the rest for pillage and breaking rank. The rape crimes acquittals have spurred disappointment and cynicism, but they should not be equated with failure, just as convictions do not always denote victory.
The Minova trial offers constructive lessons as Congo continues to pursue justice: prosecutors and defense attorneys need more time, coordination, and resources to build viable cases and high-level perpetrators must be stripped of their de facto impunity.
Since proceedings opened in Minova, the case was a beacon of hope.
Widespread sexual violence has persisted unpunished in eastern Congo for decades, leaving physical, psychological, and cultural scars. On the night of November 23, 2012, the Congolese army entered Minova, pushed north from Goma in a state of humiliation by the M23 rebel group. By the next morning, reports emerged that over 200 civilians were raped by army elements.
The Minova trial presented an opportunity to prosecute rape in an environment where impunity reigns. Congolese activists like physician Denis Mukwege and attorney Sylvie Maunga have stressed that justice is critical to stemming Congo's sexual violence crisis.
With mounting international pressure, authorities agreed to open investigations. But Minova was a Pandora's box for Congo's justice system, full of resource gaps, political barriers, and hasty attempts to prosecute complex crimes. Rightly pushed open for the victims of Minova, it revealed just how demanding prosecuting atrocities really is.
In many ways, Minova marks progress. Seventy-six survivors testified despite stigma, threats, and psychological trauma. Authorities provided innovative measures of witness protection. International and community-based organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights and American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative, played critical roles.
Still, evidence was scarce and prosecutors lacked a coherent, coordinated litigation strategy. Prosecution and defense teams suffered a debilitating lack of resources. As an ex-military prosecutor said, "it's a weak case … built on a castle of sand." Some defense attorneys worked for no pay and could not afford the cost of printing, let alone defend their clients effectively.
Prosecutors struggled with the complex task of proving command responsibility, which requires proving there was order among the ranks and commanders had control over troops. Many say that night in Minova was chaos.
Evidence at trial pointed to pandemonium, an utter lack of control by commanders, many of them absentee at the scene. This may not be the whole story.
There may have been more order and control than it appeared at trial because proving command responsibility requires independence from political pressure and time and resources to investigate complex webs of power - luxuries the Minova prosecutors did not have. A case of this magnitude normally requires years but pressure to finish resulted in a rushed, botched effort.
As a result, the recent verdict may send a dangerous message that high-ranking officers and commanders enjoy the protection of a de facto impunity, unreachable by prosecutors confined to short timeframes and low operating budgets.
Finally, the acquittals should not diminish the value of the survivors' testimony. Their stories lose neither their merit nor their worth because the court failed to identify those responsible for the mass rape. Though some testimony has been called into question, the truth about rape in Congo is emerging due to the survivors who break silence.
Their testimony sheds light on the scope and effects of rape, complementing statistics with valuable human stories.
Congo is currently developing plans for specialized mixed chambers to prosecute other atrocities like those that occurred in Minova. As they do, the government and international supporters should take Minova's lessons to heart.
As they facilitate the regional peace process, US Special Envoy Russ Feingold and UN Special Envoy Mary Robinson should continue to support the establishment of the chambers. They should press the US and other foreign governments to provide financial and expert assistance, and encourage Congo to allow robust international oversight and the investigation of high-ranking military commanders.
The job of a functioning justice system is to unearth truth through evidence and identify the most responsible perpetrators, regardless of rank or association. Congo has a chance now to break its chronic climate of impunity with transparent, well-resourced, fair trials free of political influence and intimidation.
Holly Dranginis is a Policy Associate for the Enough Project and Timo Mueller is a Field Researcher for the Enough Project