The Court of Appeal in Kisangani, capital of the northeastern Orientale Province, on 15 February acquitted Yves Panga Mandro Kahwa, former leader of Parti pour l'Unité et la Sauvegarde de l'Intégrité du Congo. The armed group was active in the volatile district of Ituri.
A military tribunal had in August 2006 sentenced Kahwa to 20 years' imprisonment after ruling that he had committed crimes against humanity between 15 and 16 October 2002, when 10 people died after he set fire to a health-centre, schools and churches in the Zumbe and Bedu Ezekere localities, 10km southeast of Bunia, the main town in Ituri.
The tribunal also ordered Kahwa to pay 14 victims of his crimes between US$2,500 and $75,000 in compensation.
"If it is on the basis of the amnesty law that the court arrived at the decision to acquit, then that law could give free rein to impunity and set a bad precedent for criminals to escape justice while the victims are abandoned without compensation and reparation," said Joel Bisubu, a human rights activist with an NGO known as Justice, based in Bunia.
The government and armed groups in Ituri signed peace agreements in 2006 outlining plans to disarm militia members, with the assistance of the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC). In exchange, the government proposed an amnesty for the signatories and agreed to recognise officers from the groups.
MONUC also expressed its concern over the acquittal.
"The Court of Appeal based its decision on the grounds that all the offences are covered by the law on amnesty as acts of war and political offences. This unprecedented recourse to the amnesty law in the light of massacres of the civilian population, which could be characterised as crimes against humanity, is a worrying development in the fight against impunity in the DRC," said Kemal Saiki, MONUC spokesman, adding that the country's amnesty law did not provide for indemnity for suspects of crimes against humanity.
The prosecutor general of Kisangani, Nestor Botela, said he was prepared to lodge an appeal against Kahwa's acquittal, but he was waiting to study the law invoked by the Court of Appeal when it arrived at the decision.
"I expect that the law upon which the decision was based will be presented to me to see whether it conforms [to the amnesty law]," he added.
The judges who issued that verdict have, however, since been retired under an ongoing bid by President Joseph Kabila to restructure the judiciary.
The attorney general of Kisangani has to lodge an appeal against the ruling within 10 days from the date it was made, according to Chris Aberi, the prosecutor general of Ituri.