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Congolese soldiers on trial accused of mass rapes

An army officer and 10 other Democratic Republic of Congo government soldiers have gone on trial accused of raping more than 60 women.

A senior army commander, Lieutenant Colonel Kibibi Mutwara, was among those arrested after the New Year's Day attack in the eastern town of Fizi.

The accused were charged yesterday (Thursday) with crimes against humanity, including rape and imprisonment. Col Kibibi has denied the charges.

Rape is a massive problem in the east of the central African country, which is still unstable nearly eight years after a war that sucked in neighbouring countries and led to millions of deaths. Rights groups have spoken out against the culture of rape and looting there, which they say is fed by rebel groups and soldiers vying to control the  illegal mining of valuable minerals in the area.

The case is seen as a test of how serious the country is about tackling its reputation as the rape capital of the world. The trial, is expected to last 10 days and is being backed by the United Nations, the American Bar Association and Avocats Sans Frontieres (Lawyers Without Borders.) It is the most high-profile case yet heard by the country’s new ‘mobile gender court’ which travels to cut-off communities that don’t have access to ordinary courts.

"The mobile courts are essential tools to improve the access to justice for people in the remote areas,” said the ABA’s Charles-Guy Makongo.

"They can also be used to show in a concrete way to the Congolese that the authority of the state in particular and the rule of law in general are becoming a reality,” he told the Guardian. They have an incredible impact among the communities where they are organised – generally, after the court, the occurrence of rape dropped."

Set up in October 2009, the court handles about 10 trials a month and has so far recorded 94 rape convictions. It has also trained 150 police officers, 80 lawyers and 30 magistrates.

Fidele Sarassoro, deputy head of the UN mission in Congo, has called for a clear legal process to punish those guilty of the Fizi attack, warning that similar attacks would carry on unless justice is seen to be done.

More than 160 women are raped in eastern Congo every week, according to figures from the United Nations. Most rapes by gunmen are never reported, say aid workers, let alone end in convictions.

The mass rape last year of 300 women in a village in North Kivu province last year, triggered pressure for action and also criticised UN peacekeeping troops.

Hayley attribution