A military court in Democratic Republic of Congo has acquitted three former employees of Australian mining company Anvil Mining Limited of complicity in war crimes by government soldiers in 2004. Judges said the charges against the miners and nine Congolese soldiers were unfounded. Joe Bavier is in the capital, Kinshasa, and has more for VOA.
Canadian Pierre Mercier and South Africans Peter Van Niekerk and Cedric Kirsten had been accused of willfully offering logistical assistance to Congolese soldiers during a short-lived armed uprising in mineral-rich Katanga province.
A U.N. human rights investigation said civilians were massacred in the town of Kilwa, near the southeastern border with Zambia, when government forces launched a counter-attack to retake the town after it had been seized by a group of 10 ill-equipped rebels in October 2004.
The Anvil company runs the nearby Dikulushi silver and copper mine and the company's trucks and planes were used by the army during the operation.
Anvil said its vehicles were requisitioned by the military and it had no choice but to hand them over.
Van Niekerk, former security director at Dikulushi, and Mercier, Anvil's country manager at the time of the uprising, both returned to Congo to stand trial. Kirsten, believed to have been out of the country during the uprising, was judged in absentia.
All nine Congolese soldiers also on trial before the military tribunal were acquitted of war crimes. But two officers received life in prison for the killing of civilians; two other soldiers received shorter sentences for lesser crimes.
Anvil CEO Bill Turner said in a statement that he was pleased the court had cleared the men, who the company has always maintained acted appropriately at the time.
Congo is still emerging from a 1998-2003 war in which rebel groups and foreign armies battled for control over the vast central African nation's abundant natural resources.
An estimated four million people perished during the conflict, mainly from hunger and disease. And parts of the country continue to suffer outbreaks of violence, despite a U.N.-backed peace process and polls last year that elected President Joseph Kabila as Congo's first democratically chosen leader in four decades.
Unlike neighboring Rwanda, which launched a tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, to judge those responsible for the country's 1994 genocide, Congo has made little effort to shed light on the dark events of its recent history.
Many had hoped the trial of the miners and soldiers, which received logistical support from Congo's U.N. peacekeeping mission, would help put an end to the climate of impunity that still reigns in the country.
Human rights campaigners decried the replacement of the court's military prosecutor in February, claiming they feared the move was a sign of political meddling. And victims' supporters said they were disappointed by the trial's outcome.
Shortly after reading the verdict human rights lawyer George Katiamba, who represented the victims and their families during the six-month trial, said he hoped the case could be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague.