GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — This week, a long-awaited—and rare—preliminary military trial took place for Sadoke Kikunda Mayele, a former Mayi-Mayi fighter indicted for mass rape. Mayele was the chief of staff of the armed group Mayi-Mayi Sheka until his arrest in October last year. Mayi-Mayi Sheka, together with the FDLR and some army deserters, are allegedly responsible for the mass rape of an estimated 387 civilians in 13 villages in the Walikale territory in the summer of 2010. Arrest warrants have been issued for Sheka, Mayele and six other fighters. Mayele is the only one in custody, while the hearings for the others proceed in absentia.
The trial, which is part of the North Kivu U.N.-supported mobile court process, took place on Tuesday at Goma’s central prison, commonly known as the Munzenze jail, allegedly out of security concerns. While Mayele was supposed to be the first case to be heard, the late arrival of his lawyer put him last on the list, after the hearings of five military officers charged for petty crimes.
Sadoke Kikunda Mayele’s name, functions, and charges against him were confirmed. He has been indicted for crimes against humanity, including rape, and association with an insurrectional movement/armed group. Mayele introduced himself as a former officer of the Congolese national army, or FARDC, before he joined the Mayi-Mayi Sheka militia. Since his arrest last year, he has surprisingly re-integrated into the army and showed up to his trial in military uniform.
With the agreement of Mayele’s defense, the decision was made to relocate the trial to Walikale, closer to the area where his alleged crimes took place, to allow those accusing him of rape to attend. The date has not been set yet, but it is highly unlikely it will take place before the year’s end.
The fact that Mayele is in detention and on trial surprises many in a region where impunity reigns. A 43-year old mother of seven selling donuts outside the prison told Enough in disbelief, “Stop that joke… A public hearing of a FARDC officer in this country must be farce.”
Mayele finds himself behind bars because he was turned over to U.N. peacekeepers by his own boss Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka. Apparently, Sheka betrayed him after they had some disagreements, as Mayele told the Enough Project after Tuesday’s hearing. According to Mayele, he opposed Sheka’s close collaboration with the FDLR his conflict minerals business allies and had tried to prevent a FDLR attack commanded by Sheka on his home village of Kembe. When Mayele attempted to flee shortly before the mass rape took place, Sheka’s men caught and tortured him, Mayele said.
“I wanted to flee, [but] he stopped me, beat and tortured me. I still have scars on the chest and buttocks,” he said as he pointed to his body. Mayele insists that he was in Kembe during the mass rape and only learned about the attacks once he returned to the forest—an account his defense will likely use to try to defend his professed innocence.
Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi himself is still on the run, though he made a number of public appearances—even speaking to the international media—while he conducted his bid for Parliament, representing the mineral-rich territory of Walikale. He is now hiding in the bush to avoid an arrest by the FARDC. He was recently added to the U.N. Security Council’s travel ban and asset freeze list. During Mayele’s hearing, a lawyer attempted to defend Sheka, but he was not allowed to speak because he had not submitted a request to represent Sheka ahead of time.
Photos: (top) Sadoke Kikunda Mayele (Enough/Sarah Zingg Wimmer); (bottom) Mayele on trial in Goma's central prison (Enough/Fidel Bafilemba)