Bringing a war criminal to justice
For 96 hours, the orders kept coming. By the end, 287 people were dead, 387 women and children had been raped, and 13 villages in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had been robbed of any sense of normalcy.
The trial of Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka was the most emblematic, complex case the court in North Kivu province had ever handled, and its proceedings and final judgement in 2020 provide a compelling example of how to bring a war criminal to justice.
Ahead of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) Day of International Criminal Justice, which marks the adoption of its founding UN treaty, the Rome Statute, UN News took a closer look at a trial that provides an important case study for nations meting out criminal justice around the world.
The case also illustrates the importance of UN peace operations’ support to national justice and security institutions.
The crimes: ‘On a scale never seen’
On 30 July 2010, armed members of the militia Nduma Défense of Congo (NDC) fanned out across 13 remote villages in restive, resource-rich Walikale, the largest territory in North Kivu, 150 kilometres west of the provincial capital of Goma.
Situated within a large equatorial forest, the area had been plagued by two decades of conflict, with myriad armed groups fighting to control lucrative mines, including those extracting tin’s primary mineral, cassiterite.
The then 34-year-old Mr. Sheka – a former miner who founded a year earlier what Goma’s chief military prosecutor called the area’s “most organized” armed group, complete with units, brigades, battalions, and companies – had given his orders.
For four days and nights, his recruits discharged them.
“Sheka wasn’t just anyone,” Nadine Sayiba Mpila, the lawyer representing civil parties in the case, told UN News. “Sheka committed crimes on a scale never seen in DR Congo.”
She described how his soldiers “would slaughter people and put the heads of these people on stakes and walk through the streets of the villages to say this is what awaits you if you don’t denounce what he called ‘the enemies’”.
By 2 August 2010, the armed militia had begun to fully occupy the villages.
The warrant: Wanted for war crimes
Those who could, fled to safety. Some sought medical help from a nearby non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Within two weeks, the survivors’ stories had reached the authorities. Media reports headlined the attacks as “mass rapes”. The UN Mission in the country, MONUSCO, supported the deployment of a police contingent.
‘No choice but to surrender’
Mr. Sheka was now a fugitive.
Also known as the Mai-Mai militia, NDC continued to operate in the area along with other armed groups.
“Cornered on all sides, he was now weakened, and had no choice but to surrender,” said Colonel Ndaka Mbwedi Hyppolite, Chief Prosecutor of the Operational Military Court of North Kivu, which tried Mr. Sheka’s case.
He turned himself in on 26 July 2017 to MONUSCO, who handed him over to Congolese authorities, which in turn charged him with war crimes, including murder, sexual slavery, recruitment of children, looting, and rape.
“The time had come to tell the truth and face the consequences of the truth,” Ms. Sayiba said.
The trial: 3,000 pieces of evidence
Ahead of the trial, UN peacekeepers helped to build the detention cells that housed Mr. Sheka and the courtroom itself, where military court proceedings unfolded over two years, pausing from March to June 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Starting in November 2018, the court would consider 3,000 pieces of evidence and hear from 178 witnesses at 108 hearings.
Their testimonies played a key role, representing the prosecution’s “last resort” to prove that crimes had been committed, said Patient Iraguha, Senior Legal Advisor for TRIAL International in DRC, who helped authorities with the case.
But, getting victims to testify was a serious challenge, the Congolese prosecutors said.
During the trial, Mr. Sheka had “reached out to certain victims to intimidate them”, jeopardizing their willingness to appear in court. However a joint effort involving the UN and such partners as TRIAL International changed that, Ms. Sayiba explained.
Colonel Ndaka agreed, adding that some rape victims also feared being stigmatised by society.
Protection measures were established, and judicial authorities were able to gather evidence in collaboration with MONUSCO, which also trained the judiciary in international criminal law procedures, giving the court sufficient knowledge to properly investigate the case, he said.
“When the Congolese authorities had to go into the field to investigate or to listen to the victims, they were surrounded by a MONUSCO contingent,” he said. “The victims who did appear, did so thanks to the support provided by our partners.”
Tonderai Chikuhwa, Chief of Staff at the UN Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, recalled hearing first-hand about the crimes.
“The harrowing testimonies I heard from survivors in 7 villages from Kibua to Mpofu in Walikale in 2010 are indelibly etched on my mind,” he wrote on social media at the time.
The first witnesses to appear in court were six children, with victims testifying through July 2020.
“After his testimony before the jury, Sheka started crying,” Ms. Sayiba recalled. “A defendant’s tears are a response. I believe Sheka realized that he was now alone. He had to take responsibility for his actions.”
The verdict: Congolese justice ‘did it’
On 23 November 2020, the Operational Military Court sentenced Mr. Sheka to life in prison.
“This marks an important step forward in combating impunity for perpetrators of child recruitment and other grave violations,” the UN Secretary-General wrote about the case in his report on children and armed conflict in the DRC.
Yet, in 2022, the country had the world’s highest number of cases of conflict-related sexual violence, his Special Representative on the topic told the UN Security Council last Friday, presenting the latest related report.
“We must act urgently, and with sustained resolve, to save succeeding generations from this scourge,” said Pramila Patten, adding that “so many” women she met during a June visit to the DRC “stressed the daily risk of sexual violence while carrying out livelihood activities”.
She welcomed Mr. Sheka’s conviction, calling it “a formidable example showing that no individual, no matter how powerful, is immune from being held accountable for those violations”.
Indeed, the trial sent “a great message”, said Ms. Sayiba, adding that the verdict was “an assurance to the victims who could now see that their testimonies were not in vain”.
For Colonel Ndaka, the verdict was “a source of pride for myself, for my country, for Congolese justice”.
Today, the UN continues to support efforts to end impunity in the DRC, including with help from the UN Team of Experts on the rule of law and sexual violence in conflict, and in Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, and other nations. In North Kivu, the Public Prosecutor’s Office expanded in June, with UN support, into the Peace Court of Goma.
Mr. Sheka, now 47, continues his life sentence in a facility in the capital, Kinshasa.
“The fact that Sheka was tried and sentenced is proof that the rule of law exists and that you cannot remain unpunished when you have committed the gravest, most abominable crimes,” Colonel Ndaka said. “Congolese justice could do it, with will, determination, and means. It was able to do it, and it did it.”