Three Congolese peacekeepers accused of sex abuse in the Central African Republic have appeared before a tribunal in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The three men – from the UN’s MINUSCA peacekeeping mission – are the first troops to be prosecuted in the scandal, which has seen more than 100 victims come forward with accounts of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and French forces.
The tribunal is being held in Ndolo, a military prison north of the capital Kinshasa.
“We want absolute transparency in this trial,” Alexis Thambwe Mwamba, the country’s justice minister, said to the AFP news agency, adding that “a few individuals cannot discredit our army”.
“Sergeant Jackson Kikola is being prosecuted for raping a (young girl) of 17 and for not following orders,” said public prosecutor Lieutenant Mposhi Ngoy, reading the indictments.
Sergeant major Kibeka Mulamba Djuma faces similar charges, while sergeant major Nsasi Ndazu was charged with disobeying orders and attempted rape.
All three pleaded not guilty.
‘Step to end impunity’
Another 18 soldiers from DR Congo accused of rape – or attempted rape – of the civilians they were meant to be protecting during a peacekeeping mission in CAR were also present in the court.
Three hearings are scheduled each week, meaning the entire process could take months to complete.
Ida Sawyer, an advocate for Human Rights Watch in the DRC, told AFP the trial at Ndolo was “a first, and good, step to end impunity” and called on all countries involved to ensure “real justice”.
But Venance Kalenga, who attended the hearing as an observer for Congolese human rights charity ACAJ, said “the absence of victims constitutes a major obstacle in the demonstration of truth”.
The UN said last week its investigators had identified 108 new victims, “the vast majority” of them under-age girls who were raped, sexually abused or exploited by foreign troops.
The UN’s MINUSCA operation, which counts 12,600 foreign police and soldiers, took over from an African Union force in CAR in September 2014 in a bid to end a year of brutal sectarian violence.
Last week a report by a US-based advocacy group said three girls in CAR told UN staff they were tied up and forced to have sex with a dog by a French military commander in 2014.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric called the allegations “shocking to the core” and promised “exemplary disciplinary action” if they’re proven true.
Paris has said any French troops convicted would face military discipline and possible criminal penalties.
“We cannot – and I cannot – accept the slightest stain on the reputation of our armed forces or of France,” French President Francois Hollande said.
Under UN rules, the responsibility for investigating and prosecuting peacekeeper sexual abuse lies with the countries that contribute the troops and police to the peace missions.