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ICC Abandons Idea of Holding Ntaganda Trial in Congo; Opening Statements Scheduled for July 7

Opening statements in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of former Congolese military commander Bosco will not take place in Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as recommended by trial chamber judges. The opening will be conducted at the seat of the court in The Hague.

Several reasons were advanced by the court’s Presidency in the decision announced today. These include security challenges in the eastern Congolese town of Bunia and the negative effect that Mr. Ntaganda’s presence in the town could have on the safety and well-being of witnesses and victims.

“The factual circumstances, as they appear at this stage, exhibit a volatile and to a large extent unpredictable situation in Bunia. Despite the security measures that are envisaged to be put in place, concerns remain as to whether they would be sufficient to counter security risks, including risks of reprisals and the ignition of ethnic tension.” said the Presidency.

Moreover, conducting the opening in the Congolese town would cost the court more than €600,000 (US$ 677,121), which could rise “unexpectedly,” and yet, given the length and nature of opening statements, the affected communities would have limited access to the proceedings.

On March 19, 2015, trial judges recommended to the presidency that opening statements in Mr. Ntaganda’s trial be conducted in Bunia in a bid to take the court’s work closer to the most affected communities.

In submissions made this month to the Presidency, the court’s registry indicated that the United Nations Organisation Stabilization Mission in the Congo (MONUSCO) and Congolese authorities were willing to assist the court in holding the proceedings in Bunia. Suitable arrangements had been made for the detention of the accused and accommodation of court officials.

However, the security of victims and witnesses remained a concern. In addition, the registry reported an unexpected increase in costs and “a very narrow” time frame within which the outreach strategy would be implemented, meaning that the success of holding the hearings in situ “could not be guaranteed.”

In reaching its decision, the Presidency considered the “paramount importance” of ensuring the safety of victims, witnesses, court officials, and the local communities involved. In particular, they noted the “prospect” that the accused’s return would remind victims of their suffering and trauma,” as expressed through the legal representatives of victims.

While concurring with trial judges that conducting the proceedings in Bunia would contribute to “a better perception” of the court by bringing its work closer to the most affected communities, the Presidency ruled that the risks outweighed the potential benefits.

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 an ethnic conflict in 2002 to 2003. Bunia is the Ituri capital and was the location of the FPLC’s headquarters.

Today, trial judges issued a decision announcing that opening statements will begin on July 7 in The Hague in accordance with the Presidency’s decision.