HRW criticises Congolese court for lenient sentences handed down to peacekeepers for murders

Nairobi, Kenya (PANA) – A human rights group has criticised the three-year prison sentences handed down to three Congolese peacekeepers convicted for the 2014 murder of 11 civilians in the Central African Republic saying they do not reflect the gravity of the crime.

"The sentences deny justice to the victims, who included women and children," Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a press release on Tuesday.

It said on 25 April, 2018, the Appeals Court in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, consisting of judges and jurors, found the peacekeepers guilty of the murder of civilians in Boali in March 2014, crimes classified as war crimes and crimes against humanity under national and international law.

However, the judges sentenced them to only three years in prison. The men – Bonaventure Abena, Paterne Ngouala, and Kévin Pacôme Ntalani Bantsimba – are now free, having served most of the sentence pending the verdict, Human Rights Watch said.

“The authorities in the Republic of Congo missed an opportunity to provide justice for the murders of civilians and to show that no peacekeeper is above the law,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Giving the soldiers who committed murder little more than a slap on the wrist sent a damaging message to other peacekeepers that they risk little if they commit such crimes.”

It said representatives from an association of family members of the victims were appalled at the sentence. “What kind of justice is this?” one family member told Human Rights Watch. “The Congolese judges must explain how the murderer of my brother is free after only three years of detention.”

Human Rights Watch reported in June 2014 on enforced disappearances in Boali by peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo who were members of an African Union (AU) peacekeeping mission known as MISCA. On 16 February, 2016, an exhumation of a mass grave near the Congolese base uncovered the remains of 12 people. The victims were later identified as those detained by the peacekeepers in March 2014.

The victims were arrested following a clash between the Congolese peacekeepers and a local militia leader, the self-styled “General” Maurice Konomo, in which one peacekeeper died. Konomo was the leader of one of the mostly Christian anti-balaka groups formed in response to violence that started in late 2012 by mostly Muslim Seleka groups.

Human Rights Watch said angered by the death of their colleague, the peacekeepers surrounded the militia leader’s house, killing one unarmed boy and arresting at least 12 other civilians or unarmed fighters, including five women, one of whom witnesses say was six months pregnant; a child about 10 years old; and a 7-month-old baby. The baby’s remains were never recovered.

It quoted media reports as saying, at least one of the accused, Abena, admitted in court that his men killed 12 people on the order of a local authority in Boali.

The court found Abena, Ngouala, and Ntalani Bantsimba guilty of war crimes, which can carry a life sentence or death under Congo’s 1998 national law on genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch does not support the use of the death penalty in any circumstance. In this case, the judges imposed a mere three-year sentence on all three men.

Human Rights Watch said court’s reasoning remains unclear adding the judgment mentions extenuating circumstances but does not say what they are, nor does it mention any other factors the judges took into consideration. Congolese authorities did not notify Central African judicial authorities about the trial or make any information about the trial public.

"While international law does not prescribe strict sentencing guidelines, international practice provides that punishment for serious crimes should reflect the gravity of the crime and serve the purposes, among others, of retribution and deterrence. While the individual circumstances of each defendant may help determine the sentence imposed, the judgment does not clarify what led the judges to impose such a lenient sentence and if improper considerations were also given weight," the human rights watchdog said.

“A lenient sentence that fails in any way to reflect the gravity of a horrific massacre by peacekeepers sends the wrong message,” Mudge said. “Punishment should fit the crime and the judges should be required to explain and defend how they reached a term of three years for multiple murders, or to reconsider their sentence.”
-0- PANA MA 7Aug2018

07 august 2018 11:43:14

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