A group of 11 militiamen in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been jailed for life for raping about 40 children, including at least one baby.
The girls they raped between 2013 and 2016 were aged between eight months and 12 years old.
The men’s alleged leader was a local MP called Frederic Batumike. He is one of those who was jailed.
Local campaigners hailed the verdict against the men as a sign that impunity for sexual violence was ending.
“It’s a strong signal to anyone who would contemplate this kind of offence,” lawyer for the victims Charles Cubaka Cicura told Reuters news agency.
The verdict for what was ruled to be a crime against humanity was heard in a packed courtroom in Kavumu, in South Kivu in the east of the country.
A military tribunal ruled that the men from the Djeshi ya Yesu (Army of Jesus) militia should be “sentenced to life in prison for the crime against humanity by rape and murder”.
The men were also convicted of murder, membership in a rebel movement and illegal weapons possession.
A total of 18 had been tried but two were sentenced to just one year in jail, while five were acquitted.
Many of the assaults happened at night. The men were alleged to believe that the blood of virgins would grant them supernatural protection.
Gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, who has developed expertise in the treatment of serious sexual injuries in the DR Congo where rape is used as a weapon of war, reported a wave of incidents to the authorities in 2015.
The people they raped have been allocated $5,000 each in compensation, with $15,000 going to the families of those who the militia murdered, advocacy groups said.
The Democratic Republic of Congo was labelled “the rape capital of the world” by Margot Wallstrom, the former UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict.
One UN official resigned out of frustration at the UN’s continued failure to halt the atrocities in Kavumu, according to a Guardian report in 2016.
In previous cases of mass rape in the DR Congo, victims have told reporters they feel ashamed by what happened, and are expected to keep it secret to avoid being abandoned by their husbands and families.
Following more than 20 years of conflict, much of eastern DR Congo is under the control of various militia groups.