Eleven members of a militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been sentenced to life in prison for the gang rape of dozens of children, and for murder.
Human rights groups have hailed the verdict as a landmark decision in a country where sexual violence is frequent and perpetrators most often go unpunished.
“For too long those who commit rape in the Congo have thought they were invincible,” said a statement released by the NGO, Physicians For Human Rights.
“Slowly, there are signs that impunity is not inevitable.”
The defendants were said to belong to a militia group called Djeshi ya Yesu — “Army of Jesus” in Swahili — led by South Kivu provincial lawmaker Frederic Batumike.
According to the prosecution, Batumike hired a spiritual adviser who told his fighter that raping young girls would make them “impervious to bullets.” The youngest victim was eight months old.
Batumike’s legislative Immunity was waived so he could stand trial.
The violence began in the village of Kavumu, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from Bukavu city in 2013 and continued for years.
Physicians for Human Rights said it was the first time a sitting government official in Congo had been found guilty of "superior responsibility for crimes he and his militia, whom he controlled and financed, committed.''
The court awarded $5,000 to each victim of sexual violence and $15,000 to the families of those killed for criticizing the militia’s actions.
The U.S. Embassy said on Twitter that the court’s decision marks an important step for justice and the respect of rights in Congo.