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Ntaganda Trial Opening Pushed to July

Opening statements in the trial of Congolese military leader Bosco Ntaganda at the International Criminal Court (ICC) have been postponed by one month to an undetermined date in July 2015. The presentation of evidence is expected to start the week of August 17, after the court returns from its summer recess.

In an oral ruling issued during a status conference today, judges postponed the trial opening date for a “limited period” in light of logistical difficulties being experienced by the court’s Registry and to a “lesser extent” by the defense team. The trial had been scheduled to commence on June 2.

The Registry had indicated that it needed an additional month to prepare for the possibility of conducting the trial opening statements in the town of Bunia in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

On March 19, 2015, trial judges Robert Fremr (presiding), Kuniko Ozaki, and Chang-ho Chung recommended to the court’s presidency that opening statements, which may last three or four days, be held in-situ in Bunia. The recommendation was in the interest of the court bringing its judicial work closer to the most affected communities of the 18 war crimes and crimes against humanity that Mr. Ntaganda is charged with. The ICC presidency is yet to pronounce itself on the recommendation.

Earlier this month, Mr. Ntaganda’s lawyers asked judges to postpone the trial opening until November, stating that they were “plainly not able to be ready” for trial by June. Among the grounds submitted in support of the defense’s application were the “exceptional” volume of material disclosed by prosecutors since January 2015, the extent of redactions applied to evidence material, and in some cases late disclosure. Furthermore, the defense submitted that it was experiencing difficulty in securing the services of investigators.

Prosecutors opposed the defense request but suggested a possible postponement to September 2, or, in the alternative, maintaining the June 2 opening date but thereafter have the presentation of evidence at a “reduced pace” to allow the defense more time.

In their ruling, judges found that the grounds for the defense postponement request fell within the “range of normal investigation difficulties that may be experienced” in a case of this nature. As such, the chamber was not satisfied that the defense’s request justified an alteration of the trial commencement date.

However, the judges ruled that once presentation of evidence starts in August, hearings would be scheduled in blocks of five to six weeks at a time, followed by breaks of up to two weeks. Judge Fremr said a schedule of the block nature would facilitate the work of the parties and ensure that the trial is conducted in an efficient manner.

The status conference also discussed progress made by the parties in preparation for trial. The defense highlighted its “main burden” as that of the changes to the number of witnesses on the prosecution’s list. Initially, 45 witnesses were lined up to testify against Mr. Ntaganda. In January, the number went up to 60 witnesses. Last month, another 15 individuals were added to the list, bringing the total to 75 witnesses. Meanwhile, the initial line up of seven expert witnesses expected to testify for the prosecution was last week increased to 13.

“We could not have anticipated 88 witnesses – close to double the original list,” said defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon. He stated that whereas the increased number of witnesses had implications on the defense being ready for trial, his team would do their best to “accelerate” investigations and review of the relevant materials.

According to prosecution lawyer Nicole Samson, the Office of the Prosecutor has to-date met all of its disclosure obligations with the exception of material relating to one expert witness, a partial transcript of an interview, and a few witness statements that required translation into Kinyarwanda.

Mr. Ntaganda, the former deputy military head of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), is charged with murder, rape, sexual slavery, pillaging, and using child soldiers, among other crimes. The alleged crimes were committed against the non-Hema civilian population of Congo’s Ituri province during ethnic conflict in 2002 –2003.