6 March 2014

Congo-Kinshasa: Congolese Rebel Leader Awaits ICC Verdict

Photo: Radio Okapi
Germain Katanga, leader du FRPI, à la CPI

Germain Katanga faces seven counts of war crimes and three of crimes against humanity, including murder and rape. He is alleged to have led a militia group that committed a massacre in which about 200 civilians died.

The crimes happened a long time ago. But the victims' memories are still vivid. On May 12, 2003, Charles Kitambala, his wife and four children fled their home in Bunia, provincial capital of Ituri province in eastern DRC. He remembers every detail: "The bullets whistled over our heads, it was raining heavily and we were hungry."

Violent conflict was raging in Ituri province. Militias of various ethnic groups were attacking the local population and human rights organizations warned the country was on the brink of civil war. Kitambala and his family managed to escape just in time. "We have seen how the warmongers killed a man with a knife. It was an experience that was very difficult to cope with," Kitambala said

11 years later militia leader Germain Katanga is waiting for the verdict in his trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. The judges will announce it on Friday (03.07.2014).

As the leader of the rebel group, Patriotic Resistance Forces in Ituri (FRPI ) Katanga is alleged to have been involved in a massacre in the village of Bogoro, just 25 kilometers (16 miles) away from the provincial capital of Bunia, in February 2003. The trial of Katanga's co-accused Mathieu Ngudjolo ended in with an acquittal in 2012.

Serious crimes - previous mistakes

Human rights activist Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been following the trial very closely. She hopes that the investigators have learned their lessons from the Ngudjolo case in which - as the judges pointed out at the time - a number of mistakes were made.

"The investigators didn't spend enough time at the scene of the crime. Some of the statements by witnesses could also have been easily disproved. In addition, the investigators had not spoken to people close to militias," Mattioli-Zeltner said

Mattioli-Zeltner is also disappointed that the judges' verdict in Ngudjolo's case was based only on the Bogoro village massacre. "Had the chief prosecutor investigated three massacres instead of just one, it would have been easier for them to prove Ngudjolo and Katanga's role in the systematic violence against the local population," she said.

The dispute began in a rural area with a row over land between members of the Lendu and Hema ethnic groups. It escalated into an ethnic conflict which was exploited for political ends.

Germain Katanga's FRPI was an armed group from a small ethnic group called Ngiti, which was part of a Lendu militia coalition. But the Lendu were late in organizing their resistance to the Hema, so it could be difficult to determine whether Katanga was acting as a commander at the time of the massacre for which he could he could be called to account.

Local conflicts - international entanglements

In March, 2012, the International Criminal Court sent a clear signal impunity would not be tolerated. It sentenced the Hema rebel leader Thomas Lubanga to 14 years in prison.

Lubanga was accused of systematic recruiting child soldiers. Yet even the court now convicts a member of the opposing side - Katanga - it will still be limiting itself to the activities of local militia. After breaking out the ethnic conflict swiftly acquired a bigger, regional, political dimension.

Ugandan troops are alleged to have supported the Lendu militia and Lubanga is said to have been receiving backing from Rwanda.

The International Criminal Court is now investigating conflicts in eight countries. Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, can therefore no longer concentrate on what happened at the local level, Mattioli-Zeltner said.

"We wish that the court could explore armed conflicts more deeply. They should examine in particular, who is giving the militias arms and financial support." During Ngudjolo's case, suspicions emerged that key government and military officials from the DRC and Uganda were involved.

Whatever the outcome of the trial against Germain Katanga, Charles Kitambala, who narrowly escaped the massacre with his family, has only one wish for the future - that history should not repeat itself. "Hema and Lendu should be able to live together peacefully, as should Rwandans and Ugandans. Mutual discrimination will not help our country," he said.

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