Updated | 8:23 p.m. United Nations officials confirmed Wednesday that they had captured one of the men responsible for a stunning series of mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this year, after initially expressing doubts over the rebel leader’s identity.
The U.N. Mission for the Stabilization of the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) said Tuesday that peacekeepers had arrested Lieutenant Colonel Sadoke Kikonda Mayele, a senior leader of the Mai-Mai militia group, and transferred him to the custody of the Congolese army. But a U.N. spokesman later told Agence France-Presse that new information suggested the suspect was “not the real” Mayele.
According to people briefed on the arrest, Mayele had initially denied that he was the commanding officer for the Mai-Mai or “Cheka” militia group, causing some confusion among U.N. officials. An agency spokesman then “misspoke” in relaying this information to the press, an official said, but MONUSCO later confirmed that the suspect in custody was indeed Mayele. “We got the right guy,” said one U.N. official.
Mayele is accused of leading a militia force along with the rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda in July and August that raped as many 500 men, women and children in eastern Congo.
The head of the U.N. mission in North Kivu, a region in eastern Congo, told Radio France Tuesday that the rebels had disowned Mayele and condemned his participation in the rapes. “What they claim is that he did what he did without any instruction on their part and they wanted him punished for that,” Hiroute Gebre Selassie said.
The arrest comes as U.N. peacekeepers in Congo have been roundly criticized as weak and ineffectual. A report commissioned by the U.N., for example, found that international forces “failed” to protect the Congo rape victims. In an interview with Need to Know in September, Anneke Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch said U.N. peacekeepers in the country lacked the basic skills necessary to stop human rights abuses, such as language capabilities and knowledge of the local environment.
“They didn’t adequately talk to people,” Van Woudenberg said. “They didn’t talk to women to say, ‘What’s happening to you? What’s going on?’ And they should be asking those questions.”
U.N. officials hailed the arrest of Mayele as a major step forward in the effort to bring the perpetrators of the mass rapes to justice, and to curtail a culture of impunity among militia groups and at the highest levels of the Congolese army. “This is very good news for the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo,” Wallstrom said in a statement while visiting the country Tuesday. “It is a victory for justice, especially for the many women who have suffered rapes and other forms of sexual violence.”
But even before the uncertainty over Mayele’s identity, experts were debating the significance of his arrest.
Jason Stearns, a former adviser to U.N. peacekeepers and coordinator of the U.N. Group of Experts on the Congo, said in a telephone interview that the arrest would “be seen as an isolated event” unless international officials and the government of Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, took stronger action against rebel leaders linked to Congolese military officials, and against military leaders themselves. Several independent reports have revealed ties between senior Congolese military officials and the rebel leaders responsible for the rapes.
“It’s a great thing that [Mayele] has been arrested, but he’s a relatively small fish in the larger scheme of things,” Stearns told Need to Know. “If you really want to crack down on sexual violence in the eastern DRC, you need to take measures against people higher up the food chain.”
So far, Kabila and the international community have been reluctant to prosecute senior military leaders, for fear of destabilizing the government and plunging the country deeper into conflict. Officials have also failed to apprehend another, perhaps more dangerous, rebel leader, Colonel Emmanuel Nsengiyumva, who has connections to senior Congolese military leaders.
Stearns said he doubted arresting military figures complicit in the rapes would destabilize Kabila’s government, and urged the international community to use its power, in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the DRC, to pressure Kabila into prosecuting Congolese officials responsible for war crimes.
“I don’t think we should open up this very dangerous door of sacrificing justice for political expediency,” Stearns said. “Once you go down that road, where are you going to stop?”