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Decision on Conducting Ntaganda Trial in Congo Expected Next Week

The decision of the presidency of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on whether opening statements in the trial of former Congolese military commander Bosco Ntaganda should be held in Congo next month will be announced by Monday next week.

According to Judge Robert Fremr, who will preside over the trial, the exact trial opening date can not be set before the presidency pronounces itself on the trial chamber’s suggestion to hold the trial opening in situ. However, the tentative opening dates remain the second or third week of July.

Speaking at a status conference this afternoon, the judge also stated that the first prosecution witness would be called on August 24, after the court returns from the summer judicial recess

Last March, trial judges recommended to the court’s presidency that opening statements in the trial should be conducted in the Democratic Republic of Congo town of Bunia. The judges stated that it was in the interest of the court to bring its judicial work closer to the communities most affected by the war crimes and crimes against humanity that Mr. Ntaganda is charged with.

Today, Dmytro Suprun, a legal representatives for victims, said while the victims were generally satisfied that the court was planning to go closer to their home, “the majority still express concerns and fears in regard to their well-being and safety.”

He said some victims fear an escalation in violence if Mr. Ntaganda were to be taken to Bunia for the opening statements. Mr. Suprun said victims have told their legal representatives that many people in Bunia were armed and ready to use their arms. Some victims feared that Mr. Ntaganda’s supporters might try to forcefully free him if he were taken to Bunia.

Judge Fremr said the court’s registrar, who continues to monitor the security situation in Bunia, had reported similar concerns to trial judges and the presidency.

Meanwhile, defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon said today that when the prosecution calls its first witness in August, the defense will be present but not be ready to begin, “and Mr. Ntaganda will be seriously disadvantaged.”

Two months ago, Mr. Bourgon asked judges to postpone the opening of the trial to November, citing 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.

However, judges dismissed the defense arguments and subsequent leave to appeal, stating 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. They nonetheless postponed the trial opening from June 2, partly because the court’s registry said it was not ready to organize logistics for an opening in the Congo by that date.

In response to the assertion that the defense needed more time to prepare, Judge Fremr remarked that the current trial opening date would fall two and a half months after the earlier opening date that the defense asked judges to postpone.

For more than a decade, Mr. Ntaganda was a prominent actor in the armed conflict that rocked the eastern Congo. Among the 18 war crimes and crimes against humanity counts he faces are murder, rape, sexual slavery, pillaging, and using child soldiers.

In the confirmation of charges decision, judges determined that there was sufficient evidence indicating that Mr. Ntaganda committed the 18 crimes through other persons, including members of the Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) and accordingly “bore criminal responsibility as indirect co-perpetrator and not as a direct co-perpetrator.” They also found that he physically carried out some of the alleged crimes.

Whereas the crimes he is charged with allegedly occurred during 2002 and 2003 while he was deputy chief of staff of the FPLC, Mr. Ntaganda played crucial roles in the region’s conflict until he arrived at the American embassy in neighboring Rwanda and asked to be taken to The Hague in March 2013. He commanded various rebel groups but also worked as a general in the national army who seemed not to be under the control of authorities in the capital Kinshasa.