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Ntaganda Gets His Day in Court: Why This is a Monumental Trial

Nine years after he was indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congolese military commander Bosco Ntaganda will go on trial on September 2, 2015. His is one of the most anticipated trials to be conducted by the court, due to the gravity and number of crimes he is accused of, as well as the long period he spent as a fugitive from justice—during which he lived openly in eastern Congo and allegedly continued to commit crimes.

The trial is expected to highlight the plight of child soldiers and set a precedent by being the first at the ICC where a commander will be charged with rape and sexual violence committed against child soldiers under his command.

Ntaganda will face five counts of crimes against humanity: murder and attempted murder, rape, sexual slavery, persecution, and forcible transfer of population. He also faces 13 counts of war crimes: murder and attempted murder; attacking civilians; rape; sexual slavery of civilians; pillaging; displacement of civilians; attacking protected objects; destroying the enemy’s property; and rape, sexual slavery, enlistment, and conscription of child soldiers under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities.

The total of 18 counts is more than what anyone else has been charged with at the ICC. Moreover, to date, 2,149 individuals have been granted the right to participate in the trial, a figure that is expected to rise. The first trial concluded by the court had 129 participating victims, the second 366.

Ntaganda served as the deputy chief of staff of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), the armed wing of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) headed by Thomas Lubanga. The group’s fighters committed atrocities in Congo’s Ituri district during ethnic conflicts between 2002 and 2003. Whereas the Congolese government handed Lubanga to the ICC in 2006, it integrated Ntaganda into the national army and conferred on him the rank of a general.

 The 41 year-old Ntaganda had the most active military career of all his fellow Congolese countrymen who have been tried by the ICC. He is also alleged to have had the most personal involvement in committing the crimes charged: the prosecution claims he was a direct perpetrator in murder, gave direct orders to rape, and personally pillaged.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, who was commander-in-chief of the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), was tried for failing to punish his troops who committed rape, murder, and pillaging, rather than himself committing these crimes. Lubanga, who was Ntaganda’s commander-in-chief, was convicted as co-perpetrator and handed a 14-year prison term for the enlistment, conscription, and use of child soldiers in the UPC.

Germain Katanga was convicted for being an accessory to murder, attacks on civilians, destroying the enemy’s property, and pillaging. Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, also Congolese, was charged with committing crimes through other persons but was acquitted in 2012.

Unlike his compatriots tried at the ICC before him, Ntaganda had a formal and long military career. Lubanga was never a soldier and Bemba claims to have undergone only a week’s military training. Ntaganda fought with the Paul Kagame-led Rwanda Patriotic Army that captured power in 1994, before joining Congolese rebel groups. After deserting from the FPLC and the Congolese army, Ntaganda commanded the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP) and the March 23 Movement (or M23).

While he evaded justice in the period after the first warrant for his arrest was issued in 2006, an international campaign for his apprehension gained momentum but was not enough to get Congolese authorities to arrest him. In a surprise move, Ntaganda voluntarily surrendered when he walked into the U.S. embassy in Rwanda in March of 2013 and asked to be transferred to The Hague.

At the February 2014 confirmation of charges hearing, defense lawyers portrayed Ntaganda as a peacemaker who was warmly welcomed by residents of Mongbwalu, a town that had been besieged by a murderous ethnic militia. They blamed the crimes committed in that town to a rival militia. They also claimed he embraced people from all ethnic communities.

However, pre-trial judges determined that there were substantial grounds to believe that Ntaganda himself committed murder in Mongbwalu, where he allegedly shot Catholic priest Boniface Bwanalonga several times in the head. They said he personally attacked and persecuted civilians, pillaged, and attacked protected objects in Sayo and Mongbwalu.

Also at the confirmation of charges hearing, the prosecution indicated that it had a substantial amount of evidence related to sexual crimes committed by the FPLC. It alleged that Ntaganda’s group used rape to persecute and terrorize civilians who were not from the Hema ethnic group and for “rewarding the troops and keeping their morale high.” The accused allegedly gave his subordinates direct orders to rape.

“There was rape at every offensive and also by UPC officers so its occurrence was known to UPC,” said prosecution lawyer Marion Rabanit. “There were no sanctions, no punishment when the victims were non-Hema.” She said UPC brigade commander Salumu Mulenda raped a witness, Commander Abelanga was a “serial rapist,” while Commander Simba “openly talked about having raped women before killing them in the Kobu massacre.”

“Bosco Ntaganda himself sexually exploited women. He kept female UPC soldiers and civilians including Lendu women as his women,” Rabanit said.

Opening statements in the trial are expected to last three days until September 4. Thereafter, the first prosecution witness will take the stand on September 15.

The Open Society Justice Initiative will be monitoring the trials and posting daily summaries in English and French. We have prepared a briefing paper with additional information about the trial.