Amnesty Controversy Grows

As fighting in east of country continues to rage, observers question recent decision to offer rebels an amnesty.

Amnesty Controversy Grows

As fighting in east of country continues to rage, observers question recent decision to offer rebels an amnesty.

With the ceasefire being broken almost daily in North Kivu, many are asking whether an amnesty law should have been passed by the Congolese parliament last month.



The legislation which pardons acts of war and rebellion in the troubled east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC – a region ravaged by years of conflict – was passed by parliament on July 12.



The amnesty was the main condition imposed by rebel groups for signing a peace deal and was billed by many involved in the process as the only way to end fighting in the east. The legislation passed easily with 257 votes in favour, 49 against and 30 abstentions.



However, as the ceasefire in North Kivu is flouted almost every day, and all armed groups are reportedly recruiting new fighters, many are questioning whether it should have been voted on at all.



The fighting in the North Kivu province is between government troops and rebel forces. On January 23, after weeks of negotiations, the Congolese authorities signed a peace accord in Goma, the capital of North Kivu, with 22 armed groups.



While all parties agreed to an immediate ceasefire, as well as to abide by international human rights law, rights groups report that the situation in the eastern provinces is as bad as ever.



A coalition of 64 aid agencies and human rights groups, the Congo Advocacy Coalition, says at least 150,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and more than 200 civilians have been killed since the January deal was signed.



In a statement on July 18, New York-based Human Rights Watch said, “The killing and rape of civilians in the eastern province of North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo continues at a horrifying rate, despite the signing of a peace accord six months ago.”



Jean Jacques Mythondeke, member of parliament from Goma, told IWPR that the government “has sacrificed people for an imaginary peace”.



Mythondeke fears the law allowing amnesties will create a culture of impunity in the region.



“It is out of the question to grant amnesty for the sake of peace to people who killed, looted and raped,” he said. “Tomorrow, everyone will grab a weapon to kill innocent people knowing they’ll be granted an amnesty.”



A member of President Joseph Kabila’s People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy, Mythondeke recently led MPs from North and South Kivu in a brief walkout from the national Assembly to protest against the ongoing insecurity in the two provinces.



“Most of the elected representatives from both Kivus are also against this amnesty law,” he said.



Mythondeke said he favours flushing out insurgents through military action, focused on the rebel strongholds of Masisi and Rutshuru.



A spokesman for one of the main rebel groups, rebel commander Laurent Nkunda’s National Congress for the Defence of the Congolese People, CNDP, called Mythondeke a hawk.



However, Nkunda’s spokesman Rene Abandi also appeared unhappy with the amnesty, saying the government should have consulted his group before presenting it to the national assembly.



Evariste Mabruki, who works with an NGO campaigning against sexual violence in North Kivu, suggested the government had little choice but to introduce the amnesty.



Military action against the CNDP ended late last year in a humiliating defeat for the army, and United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MONUC, troops have been unable to protect civilians in the Masisi and Rutshuru regions – Nkunda strongholds.



“The Congolese government does not have a strong army or strong diplomacy and is suffering the consequences of that weakness,” said Mabruki.



Lawyer Joseph Dunia agrees the Kabila government came to the talks in Goma from a position of weakness.



“The amnesty law was the only way to put an end to the situation of war and insecurity and seal the reconciliation of people in both provinces,” said Dunia, who is president of a democracy and human rights NGO in Goma.



However, reports suggest that the Goma deal has failed to bring peace.



More than 2,200 people were raped in North Kivu province in June alone, including Wema Nandondo who was attacked on June 29 in the hills surrounding Sake, 27 kilometres west of Goma.



The 53-year-old widow, who lived with her elderly mother, was on her way to fetch the banana tree leaves which she sells for a living when the attack happened. She was later taken to a UN-funded hospital in Goma where she died on July 13 – the day after the amnesty was passed. The shame of the rape was too much for her family who refused to receive her body for burial.



It’s not clear who attacked Nandondo. She was too traumatised to speak, though witnesses told a Goma sexual violence NGO that she was raped by five armed men in supposedly neutral territory patrolled by UN troops. The neutral zones were set up as part of the peace deal to separate warring parties – in this case the Congolese army and fighters loyal to Nkunda.



In the unlikely event they are ever arrested, it’s unclear if Nandondo’s attackers would fall under the amnesty – which does not include acts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.



“It is up to judges to say if that was an act of war or a war crime,” said Delion Kimpulungu, a spokesman for the Amani programme, the name given to the government’s peace plan for the east.



MPs voted on the amnesty legislation despite the absence of opposition members who have boycotted parliament since the murder of MP Daniel Boteti on July 6.



A member of Jean-Pierre Bemba’s Movement for the Liberation of Congo, MLC, party, he was shot in the capital Kinshasa. Bemba is in The Hague awaiting trial on charges relating to crimes allegedly committed in the Central African Republic.



The amnesty law will now go to the senate, then to President Kabila for signing.



Taylor Toeka Kakala is an IWPR-trained journalist in Goma.



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