Today, defense lawyers portrayed war crimes accused Bosco Ntaganda as a peace maker who was warmly welcomed by residents of a town that had been besieged by a murderous ethnic militia.
In a video played to judges, some residents of Mongbwalu said they had returned to their homes after Mr. Ntaganda’s Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) troops took control of the town and provided “security.”
The same video was played yesterday by prosecutors to show judges that Mr. Ntaganda was the military commander of a group that committed rape and pillaged Mongbwalu and that he recruited, trained, and used child soldiers.
“It is hard for us to understand that the prosecution can maintain that the aim of the FPLC operations in Mongbwalu was to attack the non-Hema civilian population and drive them out, yet their own evidence points to a different reality,” said defense lawyer Marc Desalliers.
The prosecution claims that Mr. Ntaganda’s group was predominantly made up of members of the Hema ethnic group and that it persecuted non-Hema civilian populations, such as the Lendu, in a bid to drive them out of several regions of Congo’s Ituri province.
However, the defense lawyer claimed the video showed that while Mr. Ntaganda was in Mongbwalu in the aftermath of the FPLC military operations, those operations aimed to drive out a rival armed militia – the Armee Populaire Congolaise (APC) – and not to attack civilians.
In the video recorded by an unknown journalist in November 2002, Mr. Ntaganda refutes claims that his troops committed crimes against area residents. He says his group was in the town to protect the inhabitants and their property against the APC and its affiliated Lendu militia.
“If somebody does something wrong, even if it’s one of our soldiers, run to me for help, and I will come to your aid,” Mr. Ntaganda says to a local resident in the video footage. The unnamed woman was among several residents shown who had fled their homes allegedly in fear of the APC and Lendu militants.
“We drove them all out. We caught some, others were killed, and others fled. Our objective is to fight all these leaders who are only fighting for their own good,” Mr. Ntaganda says in the video.
Mr. Desalliers said that when prosecutors disregarded these “key elements” of what happened in Mongbwalu, they failed to fulfill their mission of establishing the truth.
“It is the APC and Lendu militants that looted the town and factories before fleeing. Civilians fled and the FPLC was encouraging them to come back to their homes,” said the defense lawyer.
Mr. Desalliers also presented a list of 35 high-ranking members of the FPLC and the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), the group’s political wing. He said only 10 of those members belonged to the Hema ethnic group. He also listed the group’s senior commanders, some of whom took part in operations in the period covered by the charges against Mr. Ntaganda. The commanders were of various origins including Lendu, Hema, Tutsi, and Ugandan.
“The reality is simple: UPC and FPLC were not a Hema group. All ethnic groups were to be found amongst them,” said the defense lawyer. He added that any proposition that the group’s objective in the town was to persecute the non-Hema population was “meaningless.”
In another video presented in court this afternoon, Thomas Lubanga, the UPC/FPLC president, is shown addressing new recruits. Filmed in June 2003, Mr. Lubanga emphasizes to the troops that the party aims to re-unite the Congolese people. “No matter what your ethnicity, the enemy is those who oppose peace,” he says.
Mr. Lubanga was in March 2012 found guilty of conscripting, enlisting, and using child soldiers and sentenced to 14 years in jail. Mr. Ntaganda is alleged to have been the group’s deputy chief of staff and is accused of five crimes against humanity and 13 war crimes.
The ongoing hearings before Judges Ekaterina Trendafilova (presiding), Hans-Peter Kaul, and Cuno Tarfusser are intended for parties to present evidence in order for judges to determine whether to commit the case to trial.
Meanwhile, earlier today, prosecutors submitted that Mr. Ntaganda bears criminal responsibility for the crimes committed by his troops because he knew or should have known that his troops were committing or about to commit crimes “by virtue of his command and control” over the forces.
They argued that although he could have ordered them to stop the crimes, he did not do so. Prosecutors also claimed that Mr. Ntaganda abetted the commission of crimes by encouraging and sending a message of official tolerance by “direct perpetration and use of derogatory language against the Lendu”.
The defense continues its oral submissions tomorrow morning.