Eight DR Congo soldiers sentenced to death over desertion

Congolese Army soldiers accused of desertion and cowardice when fighting M23 rebels react while sitting in the dock during a trial at the North Kivu military court in Goma, on May 03, 2024. [AFP]

A military court in the Democratic Republic of Congo's war-torn east on Friday handed a death sentence to eight soldiers, including five officers, for desertion and cowardice when fighting M23 rebels.

Prosecutors had sought the death penalty against 11 soldiers on trial in the same case, but the Goma court acquitted three of them, ruling that the charges against those soldiers were "not established".

The troops were fighting against the Tutsi-led M23 (March 23 movement) rebels, who took up arms again in late 2021, seizing large swathes of North Kivu province.

"They never fled from the enemy nor abandoned their position -- on the contrary," said Alexis Olenga, lawyer for one of the five officers facing charges.

Olenga said the soldiers were based at Lushangi-Cafe, a federal army position close to the strategic town of Sake, 20 kilometres (12 miles) down the road from North Kivu's capital Goma.

These were the first capital punishment sentences since authorities decided on March 13 to lift a suspension on executions that had been enforced since 2003.

"We are going to appeal," Jean-Richard Buino, a lawyer for the convicted Colonel Patient Mushengezi Shamamba, told AFP.

The failure of the army and its auxiliaries to halt the advance of the M23 rebels has raised suspicion that the security forces had been infiltrated.

Several military personnel as well as members of parliament, senators and business leaders have been arrested and accused of "complicity with the enemy".

For the last 20 years, death sentences have been handed down in the DRC, especially in cases involving the military or armed groups, but have systematically been commuted to life in prison.

Human rights groups and the Catholic Church have called on the government to abolish capital punishment for any crime.