A former militia leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo was sentenced Monday to life in prison for war crimes and mass rape, a decision hailed by the United Nations as a blow against the "impunity" of armed groups in the country.
Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka was convicted of "murder, rape, sexual slavery and enlisting children under 15 years old", a military court ruled at the end of a trial that lasted two years.
The UN representative in DR Congo, Leila Zerrougui, said the ruling showed that "impunity is not inevitable".
Sheka founded the Nduma Defence of Congo (NDC) militia, active in DR Congo's restive North Kivu province, where he claimed to be fighting the Rwandan Hutu rebels of the FDLR.
A warrant was issued for his arrest in January 2011 after a series of attacks in which the NDC and two other groups allegedly raped nearly 400 people in 13 villages between July 30 and August 2, 2010.
The NDC was also accused of having recruited at least 154 children into its ranks.
His soldiers were blamed for razing almost 1,000 homes and businesses and leading about 100 people off into forced labour.
Due to the rape accusations and other acts that could constitute crimes against humanity, Sheka had been subject to UN sanctions including the freezing of his assets and a worldwide travel ban.
Despite the warrant for his arrest, the former minerals trader unsuccessfully stood in the country's 2011 general election as a candidate for parliament.
After evading arrest for years, Sheka turned himself in to UN peacekeepers in July 2017 and was prosecuted along with three co-defendants.
One of his co-accused was also sentenced to life in prison on Monday, another to 15 years in prison and the last was acquitted, according to the verdict of the North Kivu Operational Military Court.
"We are satisfied with this verdict, it is a strong signal to other warlords," Kahindo Fatuma, a spokesman representing the victims, told AFP. "The victims will be a little bit relieved."
Sheka's conviction "is an important step in the fight against impunity and a testament to all those who took personal risks in the pursuit of justice," said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
- 'Incredibly complex' -
"The authorities have proven today that they are capable of handling an incredibly complex case, both legally and from a security point of view," Daniele Perissi, head of the Great Lakes Program of the NGO TRIAL International, said in a statement.
Dozens of armed groups are active in eastern DR Congo, a lawless region rich in mineral resources. They have wrought havoc there in the decades since the official end of a 1998-2003 war, which claimed millions of lives.
The NDC still exists under the name NDC-Renovated, or NDC/R.
Last July, a faction of the NDC/R overthrew its leader, Guidon Shimiray Mwissa, accusing him of "serious violations".
The new leaders of the movement also affirmed their willingness to "surrender their weapons".
Over eight months, around 1,300 people were killed in the provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu, according to a UN estimate in June.
The ADF, among the most notorious of the armed groups plaguing the eastern provinces, is accused of killing more than 800 civilians in the Beni region since October 2019.