Congo-Kinshasa: Ntaganda Convicted At ICC for Rape, Sexual Violence, and Murder

International Criminal Court (ICC) judges have convicted former Congolese rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda on all 18 counts of war crimes and crimes and crimes against humanity he was charged with. This is the highest number of counts an individual has been convicted for by the court based in The Hague.

Reading a summary of the ruling, Judge Robert Fremr said Ntaganda was a direct perpetrator of three crimes - murder as a crime against humanity and a war crime, and persecution as a crime against humanity. Besides bearing individual criminal responsibility for those three crimes, Ntaganda was convicted as an indirect perpetrator of 15 crimes.

Judge Fremr said Ntaganda personally shot and killed an elderly catholic priest, Boniface Bwanalonga; and he ordered soldiers to shoot at civilians fleeing into bushes in November 2002.

Ntaganda committed the crimes in eastern Congo's Ituri province during 2002 and 2003, while he served as deputy chief of staff of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) militia, the armed wing of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).

Monday's judgement is the first at the court where an accused has been convicted over various sexual crimes. Ntaganda was convicted, among others, for sexual slavery and rape, including of child soldiers who served within the FPLC.

"It was common practice for female members of the UPC/FPLC to be raped and be subjected to other forms of sexual violence during their service," said Judge Fremr. He said evidence showed that at least three girls under 15 years who were soldiers in the militia were repeatedly raped.

Judges found that FPLC soldiers raped women and killed some of those who tried to resist the sexual assault. They cited the cases of a woman and an 11-year-old girl assaulted in Kobu and Buli villages, a nine-year-old girl at Camp Lingo, and an unspecified number of men. Ntaganda was found to have been a co-perpetrator of rape and sexual slavery as a war crime and crime against humanity.

In addition, judges found that in Kobu, on February 25-26, 2003, FPLC militia under Commander Salumu Mulenda captured civilians of Lendu ethnicity and, after raping the women, they used sticks, batons, knives, and machetes to kill at least 49 captives. Their bodies were dumped near a banana plantation.

Trial Chamber VI, which is composed of Judge Fremr (presiding), Judge Kuniko Ozaki, and Chang-ho Chung, also cited the killing of four men who had been raped by FPLC fighters. The trial commenced on September 2, 2015 and received evidence from 80 prosecution witnesses and 19 defense witnesses.

The guilty verdict offers a huge relief to the Office of The Prosecutor (OTP), which has suffered major setbacks, including the June 2018 acquittal of Jean-Pierre Bemba and last January's acquittal of former Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo and his associate. In those acquittals, judges criticized the prosecution's framing of charges and inability to adduce sufficient evidence.

The termination of the case against Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta in 2015 and the vice president William Ruto and radio personality Joshua Arap Sang in 2016, were among the earlier major upsets for the prosecution.

Prior to today's judgement, the prosecution had secured convictions in four trials. Thomas Lubanga, who was commander-in-chief of the FPLC, was convicted in 2012 over the use of child soldiers. Germain Katanga, another Congolese militia leader, was convicted in 2014 for crimes committed in Bogoro, Congo, in 2003.

Meanwhile, Malian national Ahmad Al Faqi Al Mahdi was convicted in 2016 on his own guilty plea for the single war crime of destroying historic and religious monuments. The same year, Bemba, his two former lawyers, and two other aides, were convicted for witness tampering.

In Monday's ruling, judges determined that the FPLC had a policy to attack and chase away members of the Lendu ethnic group, as well as other "non-Iturians" from the region. This involved killing and raping Lendu civilians as well as destroying and appropriating their property.

They said Ntaganda was "determinative in setting up a strong organization capable of driving the Lendu out," as he was the militia's most experienced commander.

Ntaganda, 45, has been in ICC detention since March 2013, after he walked into the American embassy in Rwanda and asked to be delivered to The Hague. At the time, nearly seven years had passed since the court had issued its first warrant of arrest for Ntaganda for recruiting, enlisting, and using child soldiers.

In his testimony during the trial, Ntaganda discussed his birth in Rwanda, education in Congo, and how the Rwandan genocide in 1994 motivated him to fight against injustice in order not to "see any other community experience what my own community [the Tutsi ethnic group] went through."

He denied committing rape and murder and said he prohibited sexual relations between FPLC fighters. He also denied recruiting or using child soldiers, stating that the FPLC screened its recruits and sent away those deemed too young to serve in the group. Further, Ntaganda said he enforced discipline in the militia but was only able to punish crimes that came to his attention.

However, judges said other evidence had rebutted Ntaganda's. During the trial, various prosecution witnesses spoke about rape by FPLC soldiers and claimed Ntaganda was aware of the crimes, but he did not punish them.

A former insider in the FPLC testified for the prosecution that militia commanders raped female recruits; while another testified that female fighters were not in a position to turn down sexual advances from their UPC superiors. According to the prosecution, rape by the group's soldiers was "encouraged, promised, and envisaged" as the FPLC considered women to be "spoils of war." The prosecution said Ntaganda himself sexually exploited women.

Ntaganda has 30 days to appeal the conviction. Meanwhile, his sentence will be determined after judges receive submissions from the prosecution, the defense, and victims' lawyers.

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