Congo-Kinshasa: Katanga's Release 'Aimed to Promote Reconciliation in Ituri'

Congolese authorities have released two former militia commanders that the International Criminal Court (ICC) transferred to that country in December 2015 to serve out the remainder of their sentences.

Thomas Lubanga, who served a 14-year sentence for using child soldiers in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia that he commanded, was released last Sunday. Actualite quoted Lubanga as stating that he hoped to be properly reintegrated into society; while a party officials stated that Lubanga was expected to help revive the activities of the UPC, which is now a political party.

Germain Katanga, former head of the Patriotic Resistance Forces in Ituri (FPRI), who completed serving his ICC sentence in January 2016 but was kept in prison as Congolese military authorities pursued a separate prosecution, was released a day after Lubanga.

Officials transferred Lubanga and Katanga from The Hague to Makala prison in Kinshasa after the court designated the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as the state of enforcement for the sentences. This was after the duo said they preferred to serve the remainder of their sentences in their home country.

The ICC convicted the two individuals for crimes related to an ethnic conflict in the Ituri district in the east of the DRC a decade and a half ago. Lubanga committed the crimes during 2002 and 2003 while leading a militia predominantly made up of members of the Hema ethnic group, which targeted the Lendu and Ngiti. Katanga's FPRI was on the opposite side of the conflict, and he was convicted over attacks on Bogoro village in February 2003 that targeted the UPC and Hema civilians.

Katanga's release came as a surprise to many because last year Congolese authorities declined to end his prosecution, despite protests from his lawyers that he had been denied a swift and fair trial.

However, according to various Congolese sources, Ntaganda's release resulted from a peace agreement the Congo government signed with the FPRI to promote peace and reconciliation in Ituri. MediaCongo reported that among the demands made by the FPRI was the release of Katanga and other detained FPRI leaders Cobra Matata, Mbodina Pitchou Iribi, and Floribert Ndjabu. In January last year, defense lawyer David Hooper said Congolese authorities had joined Katanga's case to those of Emery Goda Supka, Ndjabu, and Iribi, who had been in detention for 13 years without being tried.

In May 2011, Ndjabu and Iribi, were transferred from detention in Congo to the ICC detention center in The Hague to testify on behalf of Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui. After claiming in their testimony that then Congolese president Joseph Kabila was responsible for crimes committed in Ituri, they said their lives would be in danger if they were returned to the DRC. They applied for asylum in the Netherlands, which was denied, and they were returned to Congo in July 2014.

According to media reports, Katanga's release caused scenes of jubilation in his home area, Walendu Bindi. Gabriel Androzo, a community leader, was quoted by Radio Okapi as confirming that a pact signed in February between the government and the FPRI paved the way for Katanga's release. The release, according to Xavier Maki, leader of a non-government organization that works on justice issues, was expected to promote reconciliation between different ethnic groups in the area.

In January 2018, defense lawyer Hooper asked the ICC Presidency to order an end to Katanga's prosecution in the DRC, withdraw the permission it had offered to the local prosecution back in 2016, and order his immediate release. Hooper said that despite the lengthy passage of time, there had been absolutely no progress in Katanga's prosecution. He said no evidential hearings had been held, and the last convening of the military court, "where nothing of note was done," had been in February 2018.

The Presidency ruled that Katanga had failed to demonstrate that his prosecution in the DRC had violated his rights to adequate representation, an expeditious trial, and notification of the charges and evidence against him. Accordingly, the Presidency ruled against ordering a stop to the domestic trial.

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