By Arlette Bashizi
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) -Six soldiers were charged on Tuesday for their involvement in the killing of 56 people during an army crackdown on anti-U.N. demonstrations in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo last week.
The group, which includes a colonel and a lieutenant-colonel from the republican guard, are being prosecuted for "crimes against humanity by murder, malicious destruction and inciting soldiers to commit acts contrary to duty or discipline", according to a statement by the military court in Goma.
The charges were read out at the start of the trial on Tuesday. The accused had not yet been asked to enter their plea.
The two officers were in command of soldiers who opened fire on protesters, according to a source close to the presidency who asked not to be named.
"This was not a state action, they acted in isolation and not within the framework of their sovereign missions," military prosecutor Michel Kashil told the court.
"We will demonstrate that this is a systematic attack against well-targeted populations, the members of a certain church," he said.
The protests were organised by a mystical Christian sect called Wazalendo.
Congo's government had previously said 43 people were killed in the unrest in Goma last Wednesday. At the trial, prosecutor Kashil said the death toll stood at 56, with another 75 people wounded.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in eastern Congo, known as MONUSCO, has faced protests since last year spurred partly by complaints that it has failed to protect civilians against decades of militia violence.
An anti-MONUSCO protest in July 2022 resulted in more than 15 deaths, including three peacekeepers in Goma and the city of Butembo.
"The government's response is a step in the right direction, but a full and impartial investigation will have to look higher up the chain of command to ensure real justice," said Thomas Fessy, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch.
He called on the government to investigate senior officials who may have been responsible for the operation, and to release civilians who were arbitrarily arrested.
(Additional reporting by Ange Kasongo Adihe, Sonia Rolley, Stanis Bujakera and Erikas Mwisi Kambale; Writing by Nellie Peyton; Editing by Hereward Holland, Alexandra Hudson)