Three Congo Republic peacekeepers were given sentences of just three years in jail for murdering civilians and are now already free, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday, describing the sentences as inadequate and unlikely to discourage future abuse.
A court in the Congolese capital Brazzaville sentenced each of the soldiers in April for the killings of 11 civilians committed in 2014 while the soldiers were serving in an African Union peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic. HRW said it secured a copy of the written judgment only last month.
The three men are now free, having already served most of their sentences, HRW said in a statement. Although the court found the soldiers guilty of war crimes which can carry the death penalty under Congolese law, its judgment cited unspecified extenuating circumstances.
“The authorities in the Republic of Congo missed an opportunity to provide justice for the murders of civilians and to show that no peacekeeper is above the law,” said Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher at HRW.
“Giving the soldiers who committed murder little more than a slap on the wrist sent a damaging message to other peacekeepers that they risk little if they commit such crimes.”
Congo’s government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. The government of President Denis Sassou Nguesso, one of Africa’s most secretive with a history of repression at home, has previously rejected claims that it has ignored allegations of human rights abuses against its soldiers.
Failure to hold peacekeepers accountable for crimes committed on foreign soil is a recurring complaint of rights activists. The responsibility to prosecute falls on troop-contributing countries who are often unwilling or unable to press charges against their troops.
According to HRW, the Congolese peacekeepers killed an unarmed boy and arrested at least 12 other civilians in the Central African town of Boali in March 2014 after a peacekeeper was killed in a firefight with a local militia leader.
The bodies of the 12 people were found nearby in a mass grave in February 2016. The remains of a 7-month-old baby who was also killed were never found, HRW said. The Congolese court judgment referred only to 11 of the victims.
Congo Republic’s hundreds of peacekeepers in Central African Republic later became part of a U.N. mission. They were repatriated last year following multiple allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation.