7 February 2014

Congo-Kinshasa: Crucial Hearing Begins for Congolese War Crimes Suspect

The once powerful Congolese militiaman Bosco Ntaganda faces a first hearing in The Hague on Monday. He is suspected of having committed crimes against humanity in the 2000s.

The purpose of the hearing on Monday (10.02.2014) is to decide whether there is sufficient evidence for Bosco Ntaganda to stand trial. The procedures at the International Criminal Court are lengthy; it will probably be several months before the trial itself starts, assuming it goes ahead.

The charges against Ntaganda go back quite some time. Between 2002 and 2003 the then chief of military operations under the since convicted leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), Thomas Lubanga, is said to have committed grave crimes against humanity. The list of alleged human rights abuses includes pillaging, persecution, the recruitment of child soldiers, rape and murder.

Many child soldiers in Ituri were also under Ntaganda's command

On March 18, 2013, Ntaganda unexpectedly turned himself in at the US embassy in Rwanda, from where he was transferred to The Hague. The tribunal had issued a first warrant for his arrest in 2006. It was the end of a long career in Congo, which spanned numerous militia formations. Most recently, he is said to have exerted considerable power in the March 23 Movement (M23), which brought parts of North Kivu Province under its control in 2012.

According to research by the rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), it was Ntaganda who founded the militia. "They put Sultani Makenga as the public figure and head of the M23," Ida Sawyer, a HRW expert on Congo, told Deutsche Welle. "Probably partly because of Ntaganda's ICC arrest warrants, they didn't want him to be the public figure, the public image of the group," she explained.

'Fought in all the wars'

In a power struggle within the militia, Ntaganda and his supporters lost out to another rebel faction led by Makenga. This prompted many of them to flee to Rwanda, Ntaganda included. That he then turned himself in at the US embassy was probably a sign that he was afraid his life was in danger, according to Sawyer. Apparently, Ntaganda, who was born in Rwanda, no longer felt safe in the country of his childhood either.

"Ntaganda is one of those rebels who have fought in all the wars," said Martin Doevenspeck, a conflict researcher at the University of Bayreuth.

UPC leader Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2012

Born in 1973, the Rwandan Tutsi fled Hutu attacks and went to Congo, which was Zaire at the time. In 1990s, Ntaganda joined the rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Paul Kagame. Kagame seized power and has been the president of the country ever since. Ntaganda felt drawn back to his Congolese home.

He eventually held various positions in rebel groups in eastern Congo. He is said to have amassed considerable riches there by controlling mining areas.

Desperately seeking witnesses

Congolese human rights activists had long been calling for Ntaganda to be extradited to The Hague. Among them is Mustafa Mwiti, a representative of civil society organizations in eastern Congo. For him, it is clear that Ntaganda committed serious crimes - enough to warrant a long prison term. "He will not get off scot free if the victims go to court and give evidence against him," Mwiti told DW. But that is a crucial point. The absence of witnesses is a chronic problem for the ICC. Another suspected Congolese war crimes perpetrator, Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, was acquitted in 2012 for lack of evidence. The court has now declared that in the case against Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta the Kenyan government was severely hampering the hearing of evidence. The trial also threatens to collapse.

Ida Sawyer of HRW hopes that things will be different in the case of Bosco Ntaganda. More than 900 victims could take part in the hearing, she told DW. They include former child soldiers, whom Ntaganda allegedly forced to join the UPC, as well as victims of UPC attacks and their relatives. "In this case they would not only appear as witnesses but can participate and present their views and concerns during the proceedings," Sawyer said.

However, in the view of conflict researcher Doevenspeck, since Ntaganda's capitulation the case has had only a symbolic character. After international troops drove the M23 rebels out of DRC, the Ntaganda case lost much of its significance as there are still plenty of other rebel groups active in the country.

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