A court in Democratic Republic of Congo handed down a life sentence on Tuesday to one of the country's most notorious warlords for crimes against humanity including murder and sexual violence, lawyers in the case said.
The court, in the eastern city of Bukavu, also found Congo's government liable for failing to protect victims of the Raia Mutomboki militia and ordered it to pay compensation to more than 300 victims.
Despite repeated initiatives by the government to address sexual violence in eastern Congo's conflict zones, civil wars around the turn of the century resulted in millions of deaths. Experts say rape is still deployed by armed groups and army soldiers as a weapon of war.
The judges convicted Raia Mutomboki chief Frédéric Masudi Alimasi, who goes by the name Kokodikoko, along with two allies for murder, torture, enforced disappearances, sexual violence and enslavement committed over several months last year.
United Nations investigators say his forces were responsible for abducting and repeatedly gang raping at least 17 women in a cave in September 2018. He was captured by Congo's army in April.
"The victims we supported during this trial are happy that the crimes they suffered were recognized by the conviction of their tormentors," Charles Chubaka Chichura, the victims' chief lawyer, told Reuters.
The court ordered that the state pay the victims compensation as well as medical fees. TRIAL International, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization that observed the proceedings, praised the verdict but questioned whether compensation would ultimately be paid.
"Precedents have shown that the state was unwilling to compensate victims, even when the judges have ordered it," said Chiara Gabriele, a legal adviser for the group.
Raia Mutomboki, which means "angry citizens" in Swahili, was formed in 2005 to fight Rwandan Hutu militias in eastern Congo and is one of the most powerful of the dozens of armed groups in mineral-rich areas bordering Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.