Eighteen suspected militiamen, including a provincial lawmaker, went on trial Friday in DR Congo's chaotic east for kidnapping and raping some 40 girls.
Frederic Batumike and 17 others face charges of "crimes against humanity through rape and murder ... and taking part in an insurrectional movement," Charles Cubaka Cicura, a lawyer representing the victims told AFP.
They are appearing before a military court in Bukavu.
The suspects are accused of being members of the Djeshi ya Yesu militia, or The Army of Jesus in Swahili, which was led by Batumike, said Colonel Roger Wavara.
Batumike was arrested in June last year along with 74 others and accused of "recruiting a witch doctor who advised the militiamen to rape very young girls and thereby gain supernatural protection."
Some 40 girls aged between eight months and 12 years were kidnapped and raped between May 2013 and 2016, Cicura said.
"At least two girls died following these assaults," he said.
Denis Mukwege, a global expert from Congo on treating gang rape victims, had denounced the wave of child kidnappings and rape during that period in the village of Kavumu, near Bukavu.
"How can someone kidnap a child at night and bring her in the bush to rape her?" Mukwege had told AFP in an interview in 2015.
"The condition of the babies who arrive to us like that at the hospital is dramatic. These are things that are completely new."
Armed groups vying for control of the region's vast mineral wealth often use mass rape to terrorise the local population.
Batumike is also suspected of ordering the murder of Congolese rights activist Evariste Kasali, who was killed on March 17 last year, and German national Walter Mueller, a plantation owner who was brutally killed in 2012.
Kinshasa authorities also accuse him of staging several attacks on the police and soldiers in the country's east.
© 2017 AFP