Will Congolese warlord tell ICC of Rwandan and Ugandan roles?

Will Congolese warlord tell ICC of Rwandan and Ugandan roles?©ICC
Ntaganda before the ICC in 2015. He is charged with 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in eastern DRC in 2002 and 2003.
5 min 26Approximate reading time

The trial of former militia leader Bosco Ntaganda resumed on May 29 at the International Criminal Court (ICC) with the Defence presenting its case. Ntaganda is charged with 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ituri, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in 2002 and 2003. Since the start of his trial in September 2015, the Prosecutor has called 71 witnesses to the stand. Now it is the turn of the Defence, which plans to call more than 100 witnesses, including Ntaganda himself.

Bosco Ntaganda has decided to testify, but there are no signs that he will make a real confession. The deputy military commander of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia is expected to take the stand at the ICC from June 14. For this second stage of the trial, his lawyers have said they plan to present 113 witnesses, including the Accused. At his first ICC appearance in March 2013 Ntaganda, whom the Prosecutor presents as the “brains” of the UPC, accused the “Congolese government” of having “started the war in Ituri in August 1998” with a communiqué “calling for the killing of all Tutsis and those who look like them”. But if Ntaganda’s first words at the Court accused Kinshasa, he said nothing about the role of Uganda and Rwanda, how they supported militia in the eastern DRC and under the cover of ethnic tensions plundered its resources. Will he just repeat his previous declarations? Or will he also talk about the role of Uganda and Rwanda, where his family still lives?

18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity

Bosco Ntaganda, who was born in Rwanda but exiled from childhood in eastern DRC, responded young to the call of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebel movement which took power in Kigali in July 1994. The young militiaman subsequently pursued his career in the Congolese provinces of Kivu and Ituri within armed groups supported by Rwanda. Accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the UPC and nicknamed the Terminator, he is only to answer before the ICC for 10 months of the war. Despite a first ICC arrest warrant against him in August 2006, Bosco Ntaganda continued to circulate freely in eastern DRC, especially the Kivus, up to early 2013. Abandoned by his Rwandan sponsor, he decided to give himself up after fierce fighting in which he lost. He crossed the border again, like several hundred other militiamen, and handed himself over to the US embassy in Kigali in March 2013, from whence he was transferred to The Hague. Since the start of his trial on September 2, 2015, the Prosecutor has called 71 witnesses to talk about murders, attacks on civilians and protected buildings like schools, hospitals, orphanages and churches, sexual violence, looting and conscription of children under 15 to fight with his forces. The aim, according to the prosecution, was to seize control of Ituri and its rich mineral resources of gold, diamonds and coltan.

Massacres at Kobu, Sayo and Mongbwalu

The prosecution witnesses included experts, former UPC soldiers and numerous victims. They spoke of territorial battles between the UPC and the Congolese Popular Army (APC), supported by Kinshasa, and the stirring of ethnic hatred between the Hema and Lendu people. One of the witnesses recounted how he lost his wife, his father and his children during the attack on Kobu, and how he was detained and beaten. “My wife was decapitated and so was one of my daughters,” he told the Court in November 2015, saying that it was impossible to count the dead. More than 50 people are said to have been massacred in a banana plantation in Kobu, but forensic investigation several years after the crimes were committed have not enabled the prosecution to confirm the facts. Nor have the satellite images, which include the church in Sayo village where prisoners were kept in February 2003 in a mass grave covered with metal sheeting. Protected witness P017 told the Court that he saw on the road to Mongbwalu the corpse of his wife in front of the dispensary in Sayo village. “We heard the sound of a small baby,” said this former UPC member. “This woman had just given birth.” He said that when he passed in front of the dispensary again he saw the body of the new-born child lying on the ground. “There was blood on the walls,” he said. Sayo put up resistance, and Ntaganda “ordered” his troops to fire. Civilians, including women, children and elderly people, were locked in the church. P017 remembers Ntaganda insulting the prisoners in Kinyarwanda, and alleges that they were then killed with bladed weapons. In Mongbwalu, which was taken by the UPC after a fierce fight, the witness remembers seeing medical equipment at Ntaganda’s house. “It was exhibited in front of the house,” he said, “and it came from the general hospital in Mongbwalu.” The town, which became Ntaganda’s base, was described by another witness as “the region of Ituri where there is the most gold. Everyone knows that. Wherever there is gold, there is business and all kinds of trafficking”.  P017 remembers what the commanders said to motivate their unpaid troops to seize the town: “You will have money. You will sleep on mattresses. There will be food. You will have women.”

Defence rejects rape allegations

Several witnesses talked of rape committed against UPC recruits. P017 spoke of Mave and Francine, two escorts of a UPC commander with whom “he had sexual relations”. “Did they consent?” asked the prosecutor. “Me, I…. rather had pity for them because I knew they could not have consented, given their age and their size. No,” the witness answered. Several rape victims came to testify, but the Defence has asked for several testimonies to be excluded, saying that Ntaganda was not a direct perpetrator of these crimes. Ntaganda’s lawyers argue that the rapes were committed against members of an armed group and not against civilians protected by the Geneva Conventions, so they do not constitute war crimes. The Appeals Chamber has not yet handed down a decision on this. Tango Romeo, Bosco Ntaganda’s radio codename, had two young men as escorts. One of the rare witnesses to have testified openly talked of the age of UPC child recruits. Désiré Dudunyabo Tandana, a school inspector in Bunia, had already testified against UPC leader Thomas Lubanga, whom the ICC sentenced to 14 years in jail. “Bodyguards were lucky enough to be well maintained,” P017 told the Court, “and their uniforms were tailored to their size. But those in the units, they had to fold them many times, many times.” With rolled up sleeves and wading in uniforms too big for them, the child recruits were sent to the battle front, according to several witnesses.

Secret trial

Apart from the experts, only two witnesses have testified openly before the Court during the trial. The others have testified under a pseudonym and many had their faces concealed from the public. Large parts of the testimonies were heard behind closed doors, so it is not possible to have a clear picture of evidence brought by the prosecution. But it seems from the public parts of the trial that the prosecution has not brought evidence to Ugandan and Rwandan responsibilities in Ituri’s war. As in the previous trials of Thomas Lubanga, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, eastern DRC’s conflicts are presented only in their ethnic dimension. The ICC will only cast a partial perspective on this episode of the Ituri war, which left nearly 5,000 dead and 600,000 displaced according to the prosecution. The three trial judges have twice refused to go to the scene of the crimes.

Interference in the trial

After the hearing of prosecution witnesses, Ntaganda’s lawyers asked the judges to make a pronouncement on the first stage of the trial and say which charges would be maintained. “I have reason to believe that the Prosecutor has not produced sufficient evidence on half the accusations,” explains lawyer Stéphane Bourgon. Last November Bourgon also requested the total suspension of procedures after receiving over a hundred recordings of his client’s telephone conversations after Ntaganda arrived in prison in March 2013. According to the prosecution, Bosco Ntaganda tried to interfere with investigations and pressure witnesses. The judges deemed that there were “serious” indications that justified measures to restrict his contacts with the outside world. The prosecution had access to these recordings without them being purged of elements pertaining to “defence strategy”, Bourgon complains. He thinks that when prosecutors asked for the recordings, “they knew they would get information on defence strategy”. But the judges decided the Prosecutor could use recordings to cross-examine defence witnesses, on a case by case basis.