A soldier’s wife collapsed on the floor. Blood seeped from her abdomen, congealing in a puddle beneath her. She would soon die. Her husband, drunk, had stabbed her with his bayonet. It was Sunday, 20 February 2011.
The Army base on which the woman died is the headquarters of the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo’s 4th Military Region. The base is in Kananga, a pleasant city in the center of the DRC that, despite supposedly having more than a million residents, feels rural. Goats wander about freely when not being milked or slaughtered. Much of Kananga’s population lives in mud-brick huts with thatched roofs and no running water. Despite a nearby hydroelectric plant in the middle of the Lulua River, power seems to be an unaffordable–maybe even unavailable–luxury for most of Kananga’s residents. There are no streetlights and most homes and businesses are dark from sunset to sunrise.
Near the Army base’s entrance is a plinth on which a statue probably once stood– perhaps of King Leopold II or some other figure from the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s colonial past. If there was a statue, it has long since been toppled. Now the plinth bears a painted message: “La discipline est la mère des armées.” (“Discipline is the mother of armies.”) The young woman’s death resulted from several breeches of discipline.
The day after the woman died, a bit after 1700, I walked out of one of the 4th Military Region’s headquarters’ buildings. A few hundred yards away, a crowd of around 400 people gathered under and around an outdoor pavilion. I had heard that a soldier was being court-martialed for killing his wife the previous day, but I didn’t immediately connect that fact with the assembly around what looked like–and might have actually been–a parade reviewing stand under a corrugated metal roof. In my experience, courts-martial have usually been indoor affairs.
Photo by Rebecca Snyder
[This is the back of the pavilion under which a capital court-martial is in progress. The blue backs of the five judges’ chairs are visible in the center of the pavilion.]
I readily accepted a FARDC officer’s invitation to watch the court-martial proceedings. We climbed up a concrete staircase at the back of the pavilion and were soon standing a few yards to the side of where the court-martial was underway. In the middle of the pavilion was a flat concrete platform. A long table stood on the platform. Seated behind the table were the court-martial’s five judges — one of them a lawyer and the other four non-lawyer FARDC officers made available by their command to serve as judges for the case. To one side of the table sat the prosecutor, who like the presiding judge was both a lawyer and a major in the FARDC. On the other side of the table was the court reporter, dutifully transcribing the proceedings by hand. In front of the table was the accused. A wooden chair was behind him, but he stood throughout the proceedings. Two police officers stood next to him. At first I wondered where the defense counsel was. Then our translator — a FARDC special forces major — told me that the two police officers were the accused’s defense counsel. He explained that the Congolese military justice system covers not only the military, but also the police. Service as a defense counsel is, in essence, a collateral duty to which military officers and police officers are assigned for three-month stints. The military prosecutors are all graduates of the five-year university program necessary to become a lawyer in the DRC. They have also passed a special “Magistrate’s” exam that qualifies them to serve as prosecutors or judges, rather than as legal advisers, a decidedly lower rung on the FARDC’s military lawyer hierarchy. Unlike the prosecutors, the collateral duty defense counsel have no special legal training. The police officer/defense counsel’s lack of legal training was on prominent display at this capital court-martial.
One of many striking things about the trial was how well attended it was. A large crowd–military and civilian–gathered on the terraced concrete under the pavilion. Hundreds more stood in a semi-circle stretching from one corner of the pavilion to the other. Some even sat in lawn chairs just inside the semi-circle or under the pavilion itself. There was no sequestration of witnesses. Rather, the witnesses were part of the crowd, marching forward and reporting when they were called to testify.
We watched as the accused’s OIC– or at least an officer believed to be the accused’s OIC– was called to testify. In formal settings, FARDC officers often march with an exaggerated arm swing like that of a drum major. Several feet from the desired end point, the officer will make a facing movement and then goose step the last few paces, loudly scuffing the soles of his boots along the ground with each step before halting and saluting. The OIC emerged from the crowd and went through those elaborate machinations to report to the presiding judge. The presiding judge — who plays a much more active role in the proceedings than is common in an American court — proceeded to berate the OIC. The presiding judge told the OIC that the accused was drunk when he stabbed his wife and he blamed the OIC for the break in discipline that led to the soldier becoming drunk. The OIC protested that the accused had been transferred from his unit before the murder. He was then dismissed and a call went out for the accused’s current OIC to appear. A woman wearing blue jeans and a white polo shirt then emerged from the crowd. She mimicked the uniformed OIC’s elaborate arm swinging, facing movement, sole scuffing, and saluting. The crowd convulsed with laughter at what appeared to be her mocking of those martial conventions. But it turned out that she was a military officer who happened to be wearing civilian clothes rather than her uniform. The presiding judge then proceeded to berate her for the breach of discipline that resulted in the accused killing his wife.
After the female OIC was dismissed, a uniformed military doctor was called. He also emerged from the crowd, marching across the open space in the semi-circle between the audience and the pavilion, and then reporting to the presiding judge. The presiding judge treated the doctor with great respect — this witness wouldn’t be harangued by the judge. The doctor proceeded to give clinical testimony about the cause of death. On cross-examination, one of the police officer defense counsel drew a concession from the military doctor that he couldn’t say what particular weapon had been used to stab the dead woman. Pressing his luck too far, the police officer defense counsel then seemed to attempt to undercut the evidence that the accused had been drunk, questioning whether anyone could specify the particular bottle from which the accused drank. The crowd hooted with derisive laughter at what was apparently deemed a stupid question. The presiding judge went back into lecture mode, this time upbraiding the defense counsel for wasting the court’s time with an irrelevant inquiry concerning which bottle the accused supposedly drank from. But the police officer wasn’t cowed. Instead, he proclaimed that representing an accused was a sacred duty and that he would not be intimidated into silence. The police officer was a passionate defense counsel. But, alas, zealousness is no substitute for competence. There seemed to be no effort to suggest that the accused’s intoxication might be a mitigating circumstance. Almost all of the FARDC line officers we met were combat veterans. Had the accused been in combat? Had he been exposed to horrific sights? Might his excessive drinking have been an effort to self-medicate post-traumatic stress disorder? No hint as to the answers to those questions appeared during the two hours that I watched the court-martial. And I doubt those themes were explored during the rest of the proceedings.
By 1915, the sun had set. There was no artificial lighting, so–much like a baseball game at Wrigley Field before 1988–proceedings had to be adjourned for the evening due to darkness.
We flew to another city in the DRC the following morning, so I was unable to watch any more of the trial. But a FARDC military judge with whom I was traveling let me know that on Tuesday the accused was found guilty and sentenced to death. The offense had occurred just two days earlier.
To determine the findings and sentence, the presiding judge would have retired with the four non-lawyer judges and they would have voted. A 3-2 majority would have been sufficient to sentence the accused to death.
The Congolese military justice system offers the accused two levels of appeal from this capital verdict. It’s possible to present additional evidence during these appeals, which are something of a cross between an appeal on the record and a trial de novo. But I’m told that the appellate courts give considerable deference to the original verdict. There’s no avenue for challenging the conviction or the death sentence in the civilian court system.
Regardless of the appeals’ outcome, the soldier may never be executed. While military and civilian courts in the DRC continue to adjudge death sentences, President Joseph Kabila has imposed a moratorium on actual executions. So those sentenced to death have been sitting in prison rather than marching to their executions. Moratoriums can always be lifted and there is a presidential election in the DRC scheduled for this November. Still, FARDC military lawyers with whom I discussed the case believe that, in practice, the soldier will probably be confined for life rather than face a firing squad. But life expectancy probably isn’t long in a Congolese prison, where food rations are meager and medicines are nonexistent. As a doctor told us when we toured the DRC’s best prison, his medical facility is nothing more than a building, with no equipment or medicine inside it.
Much of the Congolese court-martial seemed exotic, such as its outdoor venue, the elaborate marching, and the police officers serving as defense counsel. But certain aspects of the case were chillingly familiar, such as a military doctor’s clinical description of the cause of death. What crossed the cultural divide most forcefully for me was the senselessness of the crime. On Saturday, 19 February 2011, there were two young people living on that military base. The next day one of them would be dead and the other forfeited his freedom forever. That anguish is all too familiar.