Walikale. Democratic Republic of Congo - A national assembly candidate charged with organising the mass rape of 387 people has staged a campaign rally in the eastern Congolese town of Walikale.
Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, running for one of two seats in the Walikale district of the North Kivu province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), held the rally on Thursday in full view of police, the Congolese army and within three kilometres of a UN peacekeeping base.
The DRC is scheduled to hold its second presidential and legislative election since 1960 on November 28.
Sheka leads a faction of the Mai Mai armed group operating in the surrounding rainforest and an arrest warrant for crimes against humanity has been issued by Congolese prosecutors over his alleged involvement in the mass rapes across 13 villages in the Walikale district in mid 2010.
Standing on an abandoned flat bed trailer lying in the centre of the town, and dressed in blue military-style fatigues, aviator sunglasses and a green straw hat, Sheka told Al Jazeera that he was not a military commander, but a politician, trying to protect the interests of his people.
"If I am guilty of all of these [rape] crimes, why then are all these people here to support me?" he asked, standing between amid a phlanx of bodyguards.
Sheka, when probed about the probability of arrest, said that "the people" would come to his rescue and defend him in the event of authorities acting on the warrant.
"Just you try it [arrest me] and these crowds will beat you," he said
Human rights groups have condemned Sheka’s participation in this year’s election and called for his immediate arrest.
Anneke van Woudenberg from Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera that it was "outrageous that Sheka could simply walk into Walikale in full view of the police and hold a rally".
Van Woudenberg said that the very fact that Sheka is standing in the elections with such severe charges lodged against him, brings together the vast myriad of problems facing the DRC, including impunity, blood minerals, the proliferation of weapons and gender violence.
Sheka might just be one of 19,000 candidates vying for 500 legislative seats, but his inclusion is symbolic of the scant regard for the rule of law.
"His participation in the elections and continued freedoms do little to end impunity and won’t bring peace to the country," she said.
Sheka was named in a UN report released in July 2011 that documented the rapes of at least 387 civilians in a devastating rampage of violence between July 30 and August 2, 2010. The UN alleges that Sheka's Mail Mai faction were one of three armed groups directly involved and Sheka was one of the leaders with command responsibility.
The crowd took over the city centre, blocking the main street beneath the old, fractured town hall as supporters and passerbys, climbed trucks and searched for a close up view of the proceedings. Despite the rain, hundreds gathered with enthusiasm, some under colourful umbrellas standing in puddles of mud, as Sheka went to address them.
"You have to forgive us," Sheka said, “We are coming from the jungle and don’t have the loudspeakers to address you.
“I am the president of the political wing of a militia group … and we will solve your problems,” he said to wide applause.
Support for Sheka in Walikale is chequered, with locals mostly unwilling to openly speak about their political alliances, fearing reprisals. A local source explained that many residents still see Sheka as defending the community from marauding foreign fighters from Rwanda.
But a local teacher from Walikale told Al Jazeera that Sheka had caused enough damage to people’s lives and that he would not support him, while a mobile phone vendor sitting just metres from rally said that Sheka ought to be apprehended for his crimes.
‘Cannot be traced’
Earlier, Sheka emerged from a set of red stonewalled buildings behind a school and marched in the rain with around 100 of his fighters, carrying rocket-propelled grenades and AK 47s into the town. His supporters promptly joined the march singing songs and beating plastic containers in a bid to create a ruckus ahead of his address.
The rally came after days of confusing events that left UN and political analysts speculative of the shifting relations between the Congolese army and Sheka's Mai Mai faction.
On Wednesday, Jonathan Chuma, Walikale’s sector commander, told Al Jazeera that Sheka had entered the town and was in the hands of government forces, but clarified that “he was not under arrest” despite the warrant.
|Sheka leads a faction of the Mai Mai group in eastern Congo [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
Chuma provided no other details and asked Al Jazeera not to film around the school complex, which fed further speculation of ongoing negotiations between the two sides.
When approached on Thursday at the school complex about Sheka’s whereabouts, Chuma said that the rebel leader had "disappeared" and that they "cannot trace him".
But within an hour, Sheka emerged from the complex, and marched with his entourage of fighters and supporters into town.
The rally continued despite the torrential rains that continue to swamp the eastern DRC. Poorly built sand tracks are flooded, and the UN was forced to cancel flights on Thursday due to poor visibility.
The UN stabilisation mission MONUSCO are racing against time to transport election material to offices across the country, after materials arrived late in Kinshasa.
Walikale, a remote region with North Kivu in the eastern DRC, is considered one of the hotspots during these elections as government forces and armed groups continue to battle it out in the forests.
The region is known for significant gold, diamond deposits, attracting rival groups to compete over territory.
Joseph Kabila, the incumbent DRC president, is tipped to be re-elected though analysts are warning that key opposition candidates Vital Kamerhe and Etiene Tshedekedi should not be underestimated.