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Congo Army Tries Soldiers for Mass Rape During War

A military court in the remote Congolese jungle this week opened a trial against 12 soldiers accused of raping more than 100 women, during one night in 2003. The case is the first in Congo against soldiers accused of rape as a crime against humanity. It is also seen as a test case in the long search for justice, after a brutal five-year war.

Military lawyers involved in the case, which is being tried in the riverside town of Mbandaka, some 460 kilometers north of Kinshasa, say they hope it is a sign of the restoration of military justice after years of war.

The 12 soldiers on trial were members of a former Ugandan-backed rebel group, but are now members of the national army. They are being charged with rape as a crime against humanity, as well as pillage and the destruction of property, during a night of violence in December 2003.

The scale of the violence during Congo's war has been difficult to measure. Human rights organizations say tens-of-thousands of women were raped during the conflict, and scarcely any of the perpetrators have been held accountable.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission and other human rights experts welcomed the opening of the trial, and will be monitoring it closely to see how Congolese courts begin to tackle the numerous crimes committed during the war.

The International Criminal Court is investigating crimes that were committed in Congo. But it only has the mandate to look at crimes committed after July 1, 2002, and does not have the resources to try all those accused of serious crimes there.

Congo's five-year war sucked in six neighboring countries, led to the creation of numerous lawless militias and resulted in the deaths of nearly four million people.