A former militia leader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been sentenced to life in prison for war crimes and mass rape, a decision hailed by the United Nations as a blow to the “impunity” provided to 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 on Monday at the end of a trial that lasted two years.
The UN’s DRC representative, Leila Zerrougui, said the ruling showed that “impunity is not inevitable”.
Sheka founded the Nduma Defence of Congo (NDC) militia, active in DRC’s restive North Kivu province, where he claimed to be fighting the Hutu rebels of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
A warrant for his arrest was issued 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.
“He was seen campaigning in front of police officers and in front of UN peacekeepers and it wasn’t until six years later that his own rebel group rejected him as leader and he surrendered himself to UN peacekeepers,” Al Jazeera’s Malcolm Webb, reporting from Nairobi, said.
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 the AFP news agency.
“The victims will be a little bit relieved.”
Sheka’s conviction “is definitely a major step in the fight against impunity in Congo and it has shown that despite the many challenges, the Congolese judiciary was capable of taking on such a complex case … and it saw it through,” Thomas Fessy, senior DRC researcher at the Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
“It shows that the work of the many survivors and activists, who take great personal risk in the pursuit of justice, actually paid off,” he said.
However, each time a Congolese court orders repatriations, “it is extremely rare that victims actually see any penny of it,” Fessy warned.
Dozens of armed groups are active in the eastern DRC, 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”.
About 1,300 people were killed in the provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu, according to a UN estimate in June.
“While certainly the conviction of Sheka may bring an element of justice for the victims and the right groups that have been calling for that, it is certainly not the end of the cycle of conflict in the eastern DRC,” Al Jazeera’s Webb said.