By Nellie Peyton
DAKAR, May 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Democratic Republic of Congo's jailing of a warlord for sexual slavery shows it is cracking down on a longstanding culture of impunity, rights groups and lawyers said on Wednesday.
A military court in the central African country sentenced Lieutenant-Colonel Maro Ntumwa, nicknamed "Marocain", to 20 years in prison on Saturday for crimes he committed as head of a local militia from 2005 to 2007.
The prosecution was one of several that suggest the state is making a greater effort to hold people accountable for sex crimes after being pegged the "rape capital of the world", said Geneva-based legal group Trial International.
"I feel that concretely there has been a change of heart or at least more determination on the part of the government," said Daniele Perissi, head of the Congo programme at Trial International, which helped Ntumwa's victims build their case.
"This kind of trial sends a message to all the actors committing crimes in the country that impunity is not the rule," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The Mai-Mai rebel group which Ntumwa commanded in Congo's South Kivu province often took women and girls as sex slaves after it attacked their villages, said Trial International.
The verdict came several months after Congo jailed 11 militia fighters for raping girls in the same province between 2013 and 2016, which campaigners hailed as a landmark decision.
In both cases Congo used domestic courts to prosecute people for crimes under international law, said Karen Naimer, who heads a programme on sexual violence in conflict zones for the U.S.-based group Physicians for Human Rights.
"I think we can say there's sort of a quiet revolution happening where key players are being held to account for sexual violence crimes during their reign of terror," said Naimer.
"The challenge of these cases is that they're few and far between."
Ntumwa's victims were glad to see him jailed, but only eight the 98 victims were awarded compensation, said Sylvestre Bisimwa, a spokesman for their lawyers.
Millions died in eastern Congo in regional wars between 1996 and 2003, most from hunger and disease, and dozens of armed groups continue to fight for control of the area's rich natural resources.
(Reporting by Nellie Peyton, Editing by Claire Cozens )
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