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Appearance of Ituri Militia Fuels Speculation

Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative in consultation with Congolese activists.  The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the International Refugee Rights Initiative or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

In Ituri, victims of atrocities committed in the context of the 2002-2003 violence, which claimed an estimated 50,000 lives, and the civil society organizations that represent them have been calling out for a full accounting for crimes committed, emphasizing their right to both understand the particular individual and institutional drivers of the conflict and for public acknowledgement of their suffering. They have pointed out that the cases proceeding at the International Criminal Court (ICC), though critical for achieving justice, have only partially responded to the need for truth due to the limited number of accused and nature of the charges.

In this context, the confirmation by the Congolese Ministry of Justice on March 28, 2011 that four Ituri militia leaders would be transferred to the Hague has set off a whirlwind of speculation as to the possibility of revealing new facts about the violence. The Ministry of Justice has affirmed that the four, Pierre Célestin Mbodina Iribi (known as Pichou), Floribert Ndjabu Ngabu, Charif Manda and Bède Djokaba Lambi Longa are being transferred to The Hague to serve as witnesses in the Katanga-Ngudjolo case.

One of the witnesses, Sharif Manda, was quoted by a local paper, Le Millénaire, describing the reason for his testimony as relating to defense allegations that the attacks for which Katanga and Ngudjolo are being prosecuted were carried out on:

[O]rders from Kinshasa. One way of showing the real authors of the massacres in Ituri are also to be found in Kinshasa. We know a lot of things about this subject. This may have motivated the ICC to ask us to testify.

This implication that the evidence will implicate government personnel or other powerful people has created much anticipation and some trepidation with regard to their testimony.

Who are these witnesses?

The defense has characterized the witnesses that it is planning to call as “some people who were pretty high up in the various groups that were established at the time.” The four, all of whom have been in the custody of the Congolese government, are being transferred from Makala prison in Kinshasa and are described by local civil society leaders in the following way:

Pierre Celestin Mbodina is a leader from the Ngiti ethnic group (also referred to as the southern branch of the Lendu) who is close to Germain Katanga and educated in French. He was a founding member of the Front des Nationalistes Integrationnistes (FNI) and held several high ranking positions in the organizations. He was arrested in 2005, accused of complicity in the kidnapping and murder of eight UN peacekeepers and remains in custody although there are no proceedings against him.

Floribert Ndjabu Ngabu, is another founding member of the FNI and its current president. He was very close to Ngudjolo, and to the Rassemblement des Congolais pour la Democratie – Mouvement de Libération (RCD-ML).

Charif Manda is another Lendu leader close to Ngudjolo, was arrested several months ago in Arua in Uganda and was handed over to Congolese authorities in order that he could be prosecuted. After being a high level commander with the FNI, he was among the commanders close to the holdout FNI and FRPI commanders who refused demobilization and integration into the army and who joined Colonel Cobra Matata in 2005 in the insurrection that occurred in the collectivity of Walendu Bindi in 2005. Afterwards Colonel Cobra created his own armed movement, the Front Populaire pour la Justice au Congo (FPJC), whose militia are still active in the area.

Bède Djokaba Lambi Longa is a Hema and an influential member of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), and is close to Thomas Lubanga, another defendant in The Hague. He is an intellectual and political theorist.

Reactions to the news

The government of Congo has touted this as a positive example of cooperation with the ICC. They have noted that the detainees are being transferred voluntarily are to return to Congo in May and that they will then be subject to additional security assessments and, if needed, protection measures, on their return.

While the government statement treats the issue as a technical one, civil society and some of the militias and political movements aligned with them have focused in on the possibilities that the trial presents in terms of building the historical record, building pressure for further prosecutions, and advancing other goals.

The expectations of revelations in the testimony are high. There are debates in Ituri about the extent to which ethnic identities were primary in driving the conflict and the extent that these were manipulated by other factors. Certain intellectual circles in Ituri contend that both Hema and Lendu allegiances were manipulated to hide other, primarily economic, motives for promoting conflict. According to one university professor, the public in Ituri is not well informed about the process in The Hague, nor indeed about the history of the conflict in Ituri. There is some hope that this high level testimony may elucidate some of these questions and build consensus around historical understanding of the crisis.

Others have focused on the potential of the testimony to widen the scope of accountability. Local civil society has been calling for accountability for a larger number of actors for some time. Indeed, some organizations have previously highlighted the need for these very persons not just to serve as witnesses but to also face justice for their crimes (see the previous reflection on this issue, Ngudjolo and Katanga: Their Role in the DRC Conflict and the Need for Broader Accountability).

Examples from elsewhere in the world show that evidence presented in one trial can build political commitment to address related issues. Former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba was put on trial for corruption after evidence of his illegal dealings was revealed in a libel case against newspaper editors who had called him a thief. Civil society hopes that information coming out during the trial may increase pressure to conduct further prosecutions. The environment would seem to be ripe for such action given the extensive discussion of a specialized domestic prosecution mechanism.

What information might specifically come out during the testimony? One activist suggested that a letter from Makala prison, which was circulated to human rights NGOs in 2006, might provide some insight as to the sort of testimony that might be provided. In that letter, prisoners implicated certain high level politicians in the creation, arming, and certain criminal activities of the FNI and FRPI. Defense positioning suggests that similar accusations might be aired in The Hague.

Some additional question that might be raised are what response might there be to revelations of connections among the FNI, the RCD-ML, and the former government of Congo? Will the role of Uganda be explored? What was the role of these actors in training, equipping, and operating these militias? In the words of a Catholic priest interviewed for an advocacy video aimed at the United Nations Security Council, there are no weapons factories in Ituri and it would be unjust not to ask who armed and trained the youth of Ituri in such a tense context. In addition to asking who armed and financed the militias, activists ask who gave them the orders to attack civilians? As key militia leaders, these individuals have information on issues such as the sources of training and funding.

The government, however, already seems to be seeking to counter this expectation. The public announcement of the transfer stressed that these were not akin to the suspect transfers that had been carried out earlier and were voluntary and temporary. They also noted that the testimony will be subject to restrictions on self incrimination. Additional questions might be posed about the interest of the government in this testimony and their willingness to facilitate the transfers if there was a real threat of exposing other key leaders. Indeed, Ndjabu’s testimony that the Minister of Justice threatened him prior to his travel to The Hague has already thrown up serious questions.

At the same time, these appearances in The Hague draw attention to the situation of those detained (like the witnesses) for long periods in Kinshasa without trial. For example, the UPC has already used this transfer as an opportunity to highlight the mistreatment of their members.

There is also the risk that the testimony will only muddy the waters. John Tinanzabo, spokesman for the UPC, was quoted by Radio Okapi as saying, “What I hope is that the truth will come out around this issue in Ituri. We hope that those who will testify will tell the truth. The court can then draw out the consequences.” The question, however, is whether they are sincerely hoping for the truth or simply an opportunity to down play their own responsibility. Will the implications of responsibility on the part of other parties bolster efforts to bring them to justice? Or is this merely to distract from the responsibility of those currently on trial?

An additional challenge may be posed by security. The government has promised that those who testify will be granted protection if they testify, but how can this security be assured in the event that the witnesses provide evidence against the very leaders holding them in custody. How can the ICC guarantee the security of those who testify if they are later threatened?

The public is waiting with bated breath to see whether the testimony of the key leaders will reveal answers. Only time will tell what the impact will be, but for now, speculation is rife.