Arusha, March 20, 2015 (FH) – International Criminal Court (ICC) judges in charge of trying former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda have proposed to hold his trial opening in Bunia, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, close to where his alleged crimes were committed. If approved, this would be the first time any part of an ICC trial has been moved away from the Court’s headquarters in The Hague, Netherlands.

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The judges on Thursday made this recommendation to the ICC Presidency, the only organ of the Court empowered under ICC rules to authorize delocalizing trial hearings. “The ICC Presidency will now consult with the DRC authorities and make a decision on this matter, in consultation with the Trial Chamber, in due course,” says an ICC press release. 

Ntaganda, a Congolese Tutsi of Rwandan origin, is nicknamed “the Terminator” because of his reputation for cruelty. According to the Prosecutor, he was deputy chief of staff of the FPLC militia, one of the armed groups that terrorized Ituri district in northeastern DRC between 2002 and 2003.  Ntaganda defected from the Congolese army, where he had risen to the rank of general. He has been detained by the ICC since March 2013 accused of 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity committed in Ituri in 2002-2003. Charges against him include murder, attacking civilians, rape, sexual slavery, pillaging, displacement of civilians, attacking protected objects, destroying the enemy’s property, conscription of child soldiers and using them to fight. Ntaganda’s judges explain in their recommendation to the Presidency that it is with the intention of “bringing the judicial work of the Court closer to the most affected communities”.

Under Article 100 of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence, “where the Court considers that it would be in the interests of justice, it may decide to sit in a State other than the host State, for such period or periods as may be required, to hear the case in whole or in part”.

On June 3, 2013, ICC judges trying Kenyan Deputy President William Ruto and journalist Joshua Sang recommended holding the trial opening and other parts of the trial in Kenya or Tanzania. This was also supported by the Defence teams.

However, the recommendation was not approved, and it was decided that the whole trial would be conducted in The Hague. Reasons given by the ICC Presidency included security, the high cost of organizing hearings away from The Hague and the possible impact on victims and witnesses and on other ICC cases.

At the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, courts have gone several times to the scene of the alleged crimes, at the request of the defence or prosecution. As at the ICC, such moves required the authorization of the Tribunal Presidency.

However, each time hearings were held in Rwanda, the accused were absent and were represented only by their lawyers.

In the case of the ICC, “the accused must be present in person unless the judges order otherwise,” the ICC public relations department told Hirondelle.