Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) in consultation with Congolese activists. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of IRRI or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
On May 23, the International Criminal Court (ICC) handed down a 12-year prison sentence to the convicted Congolese militia leader Germain Katanga. Despite what was seen as a light sentence to some, it was not greeted with surprise in Ituri, the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) province where Katanga’s crimes took place. In the words of one local lawyer, “The acquittal of [Katanga’s former co-accused] Mathieu Ngudjolo and the changing of the mode of responsibility against Germain Katanga had already prepared the minds [of the community]…people were not expecting a heavy sentence.” Another civil society representative reflected that “the head of the outreach section [of the ICC in Bunia] had already prepared morale and the psychological aspect of the population…through various national and community radio and various sensitization campaigns…This is why people received the verdict well.”
Although the reaction was calm, and the sentence was not unexpected, there were differences of opinion in reacting to it. For some, the sentencing was a milestone, another step on the path to building justice. For others, including some of those who saw the sentence as a step forward, the sentence was too light and should have been more severe. And, as is often the case in Ituri, discussion of developments at the ICC quickly turned to the need for the court to do more and the ongoing need to address impunity.
The human rights NGO Justice Plus welcomed the sentence, noting that it provided comfort for victims. A women’s organization, Justice, Paix et Reconciliation, also greeted the verdict, saying that it would allow victims to breathe and reassure them, even though the punishment was not as strong as they had expected. Joseph Dunia Ruyenzi, South Kivu Focal Point for the DRC Coalition for the ICC, was quoted by the Coalition for the International Criminal Court as saying: “The condemnation of Germain Katanga to 12 years imprisonment by the ICC gives hope to victims and sends a strong signal to all perpetrators of serious crimes who now know that they will be actively pursued and prosecuted.”
Even while welcoming the sentence, however, victims remain frustrated with the process. They are upset by the slow pace of the court’s work and are impatient to complete the process, including the appeals and reparations phase. In addition, many victims complained that the sentence was too weak. Of course, the low sentence is related to the fact that Katanga was not convicted of the full range of crimes with which he was accused, but the dissatisfaction of Iturians about the sentence reflects their frustration with the inadequacy of the verdict. According to a civil society leader, “I think that the ICC should understand that the exactions committed by Germain Katanga are not proportional to 12 years. There were massacres, rapes, and pillage…in my mind, 20 years would be a good thing.” Another activist said: “For me, 12 years is too little. Taking out seven years that he already spent in prison at the ICC, he is left with only five years of imprisonment. Or does the ICC want Thomas [Lubanga] and Germain to leave prison together as heroes…what joke is this? What politics? Is the whole world corrupt?”
Not surprisingly, responses to the sentencing reflected people’s political positions. While most of those interviewed thought that 12 years was too short a sentence, others welcomed the relatively light sentence, complaining only that the two years that Katanga spent in Makala prison in Kinshasa prior to being transferred to the ICC should have counted as “time served” and reduced the amount of the sentence left to be served out. This may not have an impact on potential political aspirations of Katanga, who is of Ngiti ethnicity. In the words of a Ngiti community leader, “It is not serious, in four years he will be able to return and to live with his wife and his children…we will make him our national MP in the 2022 elections.”
After reflecting on the sentence, reactions soon turned to what more the court ought to be doing to address crimes committed in Ituri. The court has long been criticized for failing to go after the truly “big fish.” Many argue that Iturians were instrumentalized by those from outside the region in the conflict and that it is these external actors that should be the focus of ICC investigations. Indeed, the Katanga defense raised related issues affirming that there were interests at work much more powerful than his client and that the “criminal plan” was in fact orchestrated by the Congolese government
In the words of a Hema community leader, “What is interesting is that this time, it [the court] recognized that Iturians were merely implementers and that those truly responsible are outside…we are waiting impatiently to see the authors of these crimes called to account for their acts.” For Justice Plus, the judgment reflected the fact that Katanga played the role of intermediary between those furnishing the weapons and combatants on the ground and said it was time, therefore, that the “true commanders” of the Bogoro massacre also be prosecuted. The NGO Action Citoyenne Contre l’Impunité said that “the serious accusations made by defense lawyers in the Katanga case should spark the opening of another investigation on the part of the prosecutor.” According to Justice Pour Tous, these accusations are “troubling enough that they may produce serious consequences for the image of the court if it does not pursue this case.”