In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than 40 young girls – some as young as 18 months – were taken from their homes and raped in the South Kivu village of Kavumu during a three-year reign of terror beginning in 2013. The perpetrators kidnapped the children in the dead of night, assaulted them, and then left them in the fields surrounding the village.
The attacks occurred with terrifying regularity, but the cases languished for more than three years without investigation; rumors linked the assaults to influential community members, and the region is rife with corruption.
In 2013, PHR’s Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones began working with medical, law enforcement, and legal professionals to gather forensic evidence from the survivors in a bid to secure justice for the girls and their families. PHR worked side-by-side with clinicians documenting the girls’ injuries, helped to coordinate the investigation, and provided technical assistance to clinicians and police investigators.
Then came a breakthrough: the arrest of dozens of Congolese militia members in June 2016. Among the accused was a powerful regional legislator, Frederic Batumike. Many expected he would escape accountability, but on November 9, 2017, Batumike and more than a dozen of his militia went on trial – the first time ever that a sitting lawmaker in the Congo has faced justice.
In another precedent, the Congolese military court for the first time allowed witnesses and survivors to use voice modification technology to conceal their identities, ensured that survivors would not testify in public, permitted witnesses to wear head-to-toe coverings, and placed dividers between them and the defendants to protect their identities – all protections recommended by PHR.
On December 13, 2017, the court convicted Batumike and 10 others of crimes against humanity by rape and murder and sentenced them to life in prison – a watershed moment for justice in the Congo.
And when the accused men appealed the court’s decision in July 2018, the court successfully upheld the verdicts, definitively securing justice for the victims, the survivors, and their families.
Justice for Kavumu: A Timeline
Rapes targeting very young girls in the village of Kavumu begin to surface. Forensic medical experts at South Kivu’s Panzi Hospital document the cases.
With prosecution stalling, PHR and Panzi Hospital’s Dr. Denis Mukwege begin speaking publicly about the Kavumu rapes and calling on the UN and foreign governments to press Congolese authorities to pursue the cases.
First international media reports on the Kavumu cases are published, which help raise the story’s profile and bolster national and international advocacy.
Congolese military justice assumes jurisdiction over the Kavumu cases and elevates them to a “priority case” for investigation and prosecution.
Military justice carries out overnight arrests of dozens of men from Kavumu, including Frederic Batumike, a sitting member of parliament in South Kivu and presumed leader of a militia known as the “Yeshi La Yesu.”
PHR experts authorized by the court to serve as technical experts, along with Panzi clinicians and partners from TRIAL International, work with survivors and their families to update the forensic medical documentation to ensure that comprehensive records are submitted to the court.
Military mobile court begins in Kavumu; 20 men stand trial for crimes against humanity for rape and murder, and for membership in an armed group. A task force comprised of a coalition of national and international partners secure innovative witness protections.
In a landmark judgment, 11 men are convicted of crimes against humanity for the rapes of dozens of girls and the murder of two men. Survivors and civil parties are awarded reparations.
The Congolese High Military Court rejects an appeal by the Kavumu perpetrators and confirms their conviction for crimes against humanity.