The Democratic Republic of Congo’s transitional government must bring to justice the recently surrendered Mai Mai warlord known as Gédéon, who is accused of war crimes in the southeastern province of Katanga, Human Rights Watch said today.
“Gédéon’s surrender is good news for the victims of Mai Mai atrocities in Katanga,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa adviser at Human Rights Watch. “He must now be tried for the widespread war crimes he is alleged to have committed. That would be good news for justice throughout Congo.”
In April, witnesses in Katanga told Human Rights Watch researchers how combatants under the command of Gédéon and other Mai Mai leaders had killed, raped and otherwise abused civilians since 2002. In some cases the Mai Mai publicly tortured victims before killing them in public ceremonies meant to terrorize the local population.
On May 12, Gédéon surrendered to UN peacekeeping troops in Mitwaba, central Katanga, accompanied by a group of over 150 combatants, most of whom were child soldiers. Reportedly, he refused to surrender directly to Congolese military authorities for fear they would kill or torture him. Human Rights Watch called on the UN peacekeeping mission to provide safe detention facilities for Gédéon while his case is tried by the courts.
“The UN should not hand Gédéon over to Congolese military authorities if there are legitimate fears he will be tortured or mistreated,” said Des Forges. “Justice is not served by new abuses against the abuser. Congolese authorities must ensure that Gédéon and other Mai Mai combatants are given a fair trial.”
The Mai Mai in Katanga is a local defense force that was supported by the Congolese government when it was engaged in an armed conflict with Rwanda., Uganda and other belligerents. After the war, the national government sought to integrate the Mai Mai into the national army but failed. Increasingly hostile to the government, Mai Mai leaders took control of huge swathes of central Katanga and started to fight their former allies, the Congolese army.
Initially popular as leaders of local resistance to outsiders, Gédéon and other Mai Mai are now seen by Katangan civilians as oppressors targeting those who challenge their control including traditional chiefs, government officials, women said to have supernatural powers and, more recently, those who have registered to vote in Congo’s upcoming national elections.
In late November, for example, a group of Mai Mai identified with Gédéon entered the central Katanga village of Masombwe and rounded up those who had election cards, accusing them of being traitors. After publicly destroying their cards, the Mai Mai combatants selected a group of about 10 men, took them a short distance from the village, and executed them.
Last year, in the face of growing hostility from the population and fearful of army troops, Gédéon ordered thousands of people in central Katanga to leave their villages and move into the forest. Mai Mai combatants then burned their homes and forced hundreds of youths and adult men to join the movement. As well as using threats and force, the Mai Mai exploit local fears of sorcery by claiming to have special powers thereby enforcing compliance with their orders.
In November, the Congolese army launched operations against the Mai Mai, contributing to the further flight of civilians. The United Nations estimates that some 165,000 people have been displaced in central Katanga, many of them lacking access to food and medical assistance.
Congolese authorities have appointed former warlords from other parts of Congo, such as Ituri and the Kivus, as generals in the national army. In doing so, the Congolese government has disregarded credible information that these warlords have been implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity. In 2004 Gédéon and other Mai Mai leaders demanded senior military posts in exchange for their surrender. Some Mai Mai leaders of lesser importance from Katanga who surrendered since then have been named colonels and majors in the national army.
“The practice of naming warlords to high military ranks rewards those responsible for war crimes,” said Des Forges. “The arrest and fair trial of Gédéon will show instead that war crimes will be punished. This will be a valuable lesson for Congo and the region.”