On 28 December 2020, five park rangers accused of raping and torturing four women in DRC’s Salonga National Park were convicted by the Military Court in Mbandaka, following a long battle for justice supported by the Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK) and its local partner Actions pour la Promotion et Protection des Peuples et Espèces Menacés (APEM).
Overturning a previous judgment riddled with irregularities and violations of due process, the Court sentenced five of the six accused park rangers, or ‘eco-guards’, to prison sentences spanning five to 20 years. The Court also ordered DRC’s conservation authority (ICCN, Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) to pay USD 100,000 in reparations to survivors.
While many questions remain as to whether, and how, this verdict will be implemented, it is a major victory for the four survivors and sends a powerful message in a country where human rights abuses and gender-based violence by anti-poaching forces are commonplace and impunity is rife.
“The decision is a huge relief for the four victims as well as all communities living around Salonga National Park. I saw the women shed tears of joy. The verdict sends a strong signal against the abuses and atrocities eco-guards routinely inflict on us’’, said the medical nurse who looked after one of the survivors after the assault and served as a witness in the trial.
The four women were tortured and at least one raped by a group of armed rangers  in February 2015 as they were carrying fish near a river inside Salonga National Park, a UNESCO-listed protected area co-managed by ICCN and leading conservation charity WWF. Two of them were pregnant at the time of the assault and one had a miscarriage immediately after. Complaints were filed with ICCN and local authorities at the time but no action was taken. The incident was also reportedly brought to the attention of WWF officials back in 2016 but the organisation refused to act for fear of undermining its relationship with ICCN .
It is only after RFUK and APEM exposed this and many other human rights abuses by Salonga’s eco-guards, causing public outcry and a wave of probes by international donors, that WWF and ICCN investigated the case and referred it to judicial authorities.
RFUK and APEM then worked with local lawyers and activists, with additional resources from Amnesty International and the Forest Peoples’ Programme, to support the four women throughout the judicial process. The pre-trial and trial proceedings were vitiated with serious flaws, including a serious lack of consideration for survivors’ safety, evidence of serious lack of professionalism from the judge, and general lack of due process. The first instance judgment, whereby the Boendé Military Tribunal acquitted five of the six accused in November 2019, largely dismissed extensive evidence presented by the victims and several witnesses. The Mbandaka appeal verdict is righting some of these wrongs.
Other human rights abuses including murder, rape and severe cases of torture, were documented in Salonga by RFUK and APEM and later confirmed by park authorities and independent observers – with solid grounds to believe that these are just the tip of the iceberg . Despite promises by WWF to address the situation and set up a park-level grievance mechanism, no effective process is currently in place to help known victims and their families seek redress or allow other potential victims to come forward.
Salonga is not an isolated case and human rights abuses by park rangers are a common occurrence in DRC and the wider region . This is driven by an overly coercive approach to conservation that pits heavily armed, poorly trained paramilitary forces against vulnerable communities who have been displaced from their traditional lands are criminalized in their efforts to survive.
A few days after the Salonga verdict, five eco-guards from another Congolese national park, Kahuzi-Biega, were found guilty of serious crimes against two local Batwa men (two were sentenced for murder and three for actual bodily harm). ICCN was again ordered to pay large amounts in compensation to the victims and their families . This suggests the start of a radical shift in how military justice in DRC deals with conservation-related abuses.
Maud Salber, Senior Coordinator of RFUK’s Conservation and Human rights programme, said, “These verdicts send a message of hope to the many collateral victims of the so-called ‘conservation war’ that impunity will not be tolerated anymore. We now call on the authorities and their partners to provide justice to affected people and to embark on a root and branch change of the fortress conservation model.”
Blaise Mudodosi, Coordinator of APEM, said: “We warmly welcome this judgment and hope that all other cases of human rights violations in and around protected areas will meet the same fate. This national move to fight corruption and promote the rule of law should be supported. We encourage Congolese civil society to continue documenting and denouncing abuses committed in the context of conservation. These abuses only fuel the already widespread conflicts and tensions between local and indigenous communities and managers of protected areas - a situation that in no way benefits the preservation of biodiversity."
 While testimonies are consistent that up to 22 eco-guards were involved in the assault and that all four women were sexually abused, only six eco-guards were charged with torture and only one of them with rape – following a judicial investigation vitiated with serious flaws repeatedly raised by RFUK and APEM.
 This was revealed in a recently published Independent Review into allegations of human rights abuses across WWF-managed programmes. The review found that WWF has financed and provided technical support to conservation projects that have been rife with human rights violations across the world, and WWF failed to deal with these issues adequately. These failing came across particularly strongly in the case of Salonga National Park. See Embedding Human Rights in Forest Conservation: From Intent to Action – Report of the Independent Panel of Experts of the Independent Review of allegations raised in the media regarding human rights violations in the context of WWF’s conservation work, 17 November 2020. p.73: https://wwfint.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/independent_review___independent_panel_of_experts__final_report_24_nov_2020.pdf
 See for example: http://rainforestparksandpeople.org/