By Aaron Ross
KINSHASA (Reuters) - A Democratic Republic of Congo court convicted seven soldiers on Thursday for the murder of suspected militia members in the country's insurrection-ravaged Kasai region.
The court in the central Congolese city of Mbuji Mayi sentenced two army majors to 20 years in prison and three other soldiers to 15 years for murder and improperly disposing of weapons, defense lawyer Jimmy Bashile told Reuters.
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A video of the massacre showed soldiers shooting people, some of them young women, at point blank range and provoked international condemnation when it appeared in February.
Two soldiers were sentenced in absentia to capital punishment, Bashile added, although Congo has observed a moratorium on the death penalty for more than a decade.
One other soldier received a 12-month suspended sentence for failing to denounce the crimes, while another was acquitted for lack of evidence, Bashile said. All of the defendants who were convicted plan to appeal their sentences, he added.
More than 3,000 people have been killed and 1.3 million displaced since the start of an insurrection last August by the Kamuina Nsapu militia, which demands that the government withdraw its forces.
At least 52 mass graves have also been found and several of the defendants in Mbuji Mayi had faced more serious war crimes charges, but those were dropped mid-trial.
Congo's government denies any systematic use of excessive force and has said the prosecutions show its justice system's ability to deal with crimes committed during the conflict.
The United Nations and rights groups, however, say Congolese authorities have not done enough to hold perpetrators responsible. The U.N. Human Rights Council voted last month to establish an international investigation.
Militia violence in Congo, a tinder box of conflicts over land, ethnicity and minerals, has been worsened by President Joseph Kabila's refusal to step down when his mandate expired in December, and analysts say it risks spinning out of control.
(Editing by Alexander Smith)