At large for nearly seven years since the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant against him, Bosco Ntaganda today made his first appearance before the court. The Congolese national, who was indicted together with Thomas Lubanga –whose trial resulted in a conviction one year ago – pleaded not guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. His lawyer said Mr. Ntaganda planned to apply for interim release.
Mr. Ntaganda reportedly walked into the American embassy in Kigali, Rwanda last week and asked to be transferred to the ICC. On March 22, he was transferred to the court’s detention center in the Scheveningen area of The Hague. It is not known what prompted his voluntary surrender to the court.
In the period between the issue of the first arrest warrant against him back in August 2006 and his transfer to the court, Mr. Ntaganda lived in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), at times as a rebel leader, at other times a general in the Congolese army. He also engaged in business and farming, even as international pressure for his arrest piled on Congolese authorities.
Last year, judges issued a second warrant for his arrest. Initially, he and Mr. Lubanga were indicted for the war crimes of recruiting and conscripting children under the age of 15 and using them in armed conflict. Mr. Lubanga, who prosecutors say was the head of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), was sentenced to 14 years in jail in July 2012.
The second warrant against Mr. Ntaganda added murder, attacks against the civilian population, rape and sexual slavery, persecution, and pillaging to the charge sheet. The crimes are alleged to have been committed between September 2002 and September 2003, while Mr. Ntaganda served as the alleged deputy chief of the General Staff of the FPLC in Congo’s Ituri region.
In court today, Presiding Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova asked the accused to identify himself and state his profession.
“I was born on the 5th of November 1973. I was born in Rwanda but grew up in Congo” Mr. Ntaganda replied. Speaking Kinyarwanda, he stated that he was a Congolese citizen, and, “as you know I was a soldier in the Congo.”
He said he did not have any other names besides the two – “Bosco Ntaganda” – given to him by his parents. Mr. Ntaganda also said he was not guilty of the crimes he is accused of, but as he started to explain his innocence, Judge Trendafilova cut him short.
“I want to repeat that the purpose of the initial appearance is a very limited one, just to know whether you were informed of the crimes you are alleged to have committed and whether you were informed of your rights as guaranteed by the statute,” the judge said.
Mr. Ntaganda said he had been informed of the charges against him as well as of his rights. The judge then explained to the accused the rights that the court’s laws and regulations guaranteed him.
Judge Trendafilova said today’s hearing was also aimed at setting a date for the commencement of the confirmation of charges hearing, which was set for September 23, 2013. During the confirmation hearing, the judges will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that Mr. Ntaganda committed each of the crimes he is accused of. If the charges are confirmed, his case will go to the trial phase.
Also at today’s hearing, Hassane Bel Lakhdar, a court-appointed lawyer for the accused, stated that Mr. Ntaganda would apply for interim release. The defense lawyer complained that an official at the court’s detention center had asked him to leave the facility while he was holding a meeting with Mr. Ntaganda. The court official had told him it was time for visitors to leave the facility.
“My client surrendered to court voluntarily, the charges against him are very serious, and we must be given chance to meet face to face,” said Mr. Lakhdar.
Judge Trendafilova directed the court’s registry to ensure that the defense lawyer has access to the accused with absolute confidentiality for purposes of preparing the defense case.
Mr. Ntaganda is the fifth Congolese national to face charges at the ICC. Besides Mr. Lubanga, who was the first individual to be tried by the court, there are on-going trials for Jean-Pierre Bemba and Germain Katanga. Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, also a Congolese national, was acquitted last December.