KINSHASA, Congo - Militiamen and renegade soldiers have raped and beaten tens of thousands of women and young girls in eastern Congo, and nearly all the crimes have gone unpunished by the country's broken judicial system, an international human rights group said Monday.
Hundreds of new rapes are reported every week, but only 10 soldiers and militants have been convicted of rape in relatively lawless eastern Congo since the end of the country's devastating war in 2002, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report.
"Perpetrators of sexual violence are members of virtually all the armed forces and armed groups that operate in eastern Congo," according to the 52-page report.
"The Congolese justice system has to date failed to address the egregious problem."
Rape is often a preferred weapon of armed groups fighting the east's myriad battles, as it was during the 1998-2002 war - Monday's report quotes a World Health Organization study that documented over 40,000 rapes in two eastern provinces during the conflict.
Marauding gunmen gang-raped children as young as 3-years-old, and often raped women and young girls - some to the point of death - as their families helplessly watched, the report said.
At least 10 women were being raped every day in the tiny, embattled town of Bunia as recently as October 2004, according to the report.
Warring ethnic Hema and Lendu militia continue to terrorize Bunia - kicking down doors in the night and snatching girls in the fields - despite the presence of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers based there.
Peacekeepers in Bunia have also been accused of raping young girls living in the town's sprawling camp for those displaced by fighting, or trading sweets and pocket change for sex.
The United Nations reported Saturday that Lendu militia in the northern Ituri province had kidnapped thousands of people and used many of them as sex slaves.
In some cases, even boys and men were being raped by armed groups.
In all, the report states that "tens of thousands" of rapes had been reported, and many more are believed to have gone unreported.
Despite the creation of a transitional government in 2003 that ended Congo's five-year war, the long arm of the law has yet to reach the troubled east.
Outdated rape laws, lack of police and criminal courts, and widespread failure to see rape as a crime make it impossible for the few prosecutors to pursue rapists, said Juliane Kippenberg, researcher and spokeswomen for Human Rights Watch.
"Prosecutors rarely have the support or the funds to properly do their jobs," Kippenberg said. "Most of these cases eventually get thrown out. The justice system is failing these people."
Kippenberg said many young girls are also too afraid or embarrassed to report rape to their parents, or to military authorities in the region. Many die from lack of medical attention after being raped, and some commit suicide rather than seek help.
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