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Ntaganda Lawyers Seek to Appeal Trial Opening Date

Lawyers for Congolese war crimes indictee Bosco Ntaganda are seeking to appeal the July 2015 opening date for his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Two weeks ago, trial chamber judges rejected a suggestion by his lawyers for the trial to be delayed until November.

According to defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon, the judges’ decision to postpone the holding of opening statements until the second or third week of July and commencement of hearing evidence to the third week of August “rests on mixed errors of law and fact warranting the intervention of the Appeals Chamber at this stage.”

In an April 24, 2015 application for leave to appeal the decision, Mr. Bourgon faults judges for failing to provide a “reasoned opinion” setting out the reasons why the defense submissions did not justify a postponement to November at the earliest, as the defense had requested.

“The Chamber failed to address critical submissions made by the Defense and, having noted certain submissions, failed to explain how the issues raised in support thereof did not warrant a postponement of the length requested,” argued Mr. Bourgon.

Last March, judges recommended to the court’s presidency that the opening of the trial takes place in the eastern Congo town of Bunia, where the militia group Mr. Ntaganda commanded was based. The presidency is yet to pronounce itself on the issue.

In an oral ruling on April 22, judges postponed the Ntaganda 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 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 and did not justify the sort of alteration of the trial commencement as suggested by the defense.

Mr. Ntaganda’s lawyers cited delayed disclosure of the identity of numerous prosecution witnesses, the “exceptional” volume of material disclosed by the prosecution, and the inability by the defense to secure the services of suitable investigators as reasons for the postponement.

In the application to appeal, Mr. Bourgon said opening the trial in July would harm the right of the accused to have adequate time to prepare his defense. He also said the expeditious conduct of the proceedings would significantly be affected in many ways. For instance, “defense cross-examinations will necessarily be less focussed and longer” and “in some cases, requests for delays will inevitably have to be presented, leading to time-consuming litigation.”

In their ruling last month, the judges decided 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. They said such a schedule of the block nature would facilitate the work of the parties and ensure that the trial is conducted in an efficient manner.

Mr. Ntaganda faces 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that were allegedly committed while he was deputy military head of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). The purported crimes were committed against civilians in Congo’s Ituri province during ethnic conflict in 2002 and 2003.