Bosco Ntaganda, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, told judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) today that he is not a killer but a revolutionary who fought to bring peace to Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I have been described as a terminator, as an infamous killer, but that is not me. I had that reputation not because I did any such thing but because of hatred against Rwandans,” he said.
Speaking on the second day of opening statements in his trial, Ntaganda, who was born in Rwanda but became a Congolese national, stated that contrary to the prosecution’s allegations, he joined UPC (Union of Congolese Patriots) to restore security and protect civilians in the war-torn Ituri district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Ntaganda is charged with 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed while he was the deputy chief of staff of UPC’s militia. The crimes, including rape, sexual slavery, and pillaging, were allegedly committed during 2002-2003 while the UPC militia attempted to drive non-Hema ethnic groups from parts of Ituri.
“I am a soldier and I was trained by Ugandan and Rwandan military experts. I myself have trained a large number of soldiers. I am a seasoned instructor. I have always respected military tactics and strategies and considered discipline the foundation of my service,” he said.
He added that it was because of his respect for military discipline that he was made a general in the DRC army while still a young man, and why he had earlier been appointed UPC’s deputy chief of staff.
Ntaganda said ethnic troubles in Ituri started when, on August 4, 1998, the DRC government in Kinshasa asked civilians to kill Tutsis or those that looked like Tutsis. Many were forced to flee their homes, he said.
From 2000, he said, the Uganda army was active in the area, first supporting the UPC before chasing its fighters out of the district headquarters of Bunia.
“During all those battles, many of my Congolese compatriots suffered,” said Ntaganda.
His objective for joining the UPC in 2002 was therefore to see a peaceful return of Congolese who had been chased from their homes and “to restore peace without ethnic discrimination.”
Ntaganda said he is not a criminal but a “rebel revolutionary.” He mentioned that he fought alongside Rwandan rebels during 1990-1994 and was one of the fighters who ended the Rwandan genocide.
He also stated that, as an officer, he always fought with people in uniform. “I have never fought civilians … I have always protected them.”
Earlier, defense lawyer Luc Boutin said Ntaganda’s actions should be assessed in view of the political and military context of Ituri at the time. “Evidence will show that underlying premises of prosecution theories that he’s a bloodthirsty soldier are quite false,” said Boutin.
According to him, the aim of the UPC was to protect the population against massacres by the Rally for Congolese Democracy–Movement for Liberation (RCD-ML) and its allied Lendu militia.
Meanwhile, lead defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon said Ntaganda sought to build the FPLC as an “organized, effective, and disciplined” force and punished members of the FPLC who committed breaches or violations.
However, he also stated that his team did not have sufficient time to prepare for the trial and had contemplated not making an opening statement.
He said the defense had not had an investigator in the field since June, which “makes us unready for the first witness on September 15.” Two weeks ago, the defense recruited a field investigator, but last Sunday he informed the defense team that he was quitting. Bourgon did not give details of why they faced difficulties in getting an investigator.
In other submissions before judges, the defense suggested that victims should play a limited role in the trial so that they do not become second prosecutors. They criticized the planned use of closed sessions during the testimony of some witnesses, which they argued would deny Ntaganda a right to a public trial and undermine efforts to establish the truthfulness of testimony.
Sarah Pellet and Dmytro Suprun, who represent victims in the trial, had earlier noted that victims had waited for 12 years for justice.
“The rehabilitation of these children requires the acknowledgement of the suffering they were subjected to,” Pellet said. She recounted the suffering of child soldiers especially, including the females who did housework, cleaned commanders’ uniforms, and were subjected to sexual violence.
“Following these rapes some of these girls gave birth to children they have never abandoned but in whose eyes they see the men who raped them,” she said.
Suprun said each of the 1,862 victims he represents lost at least one family member. Some saw their loved ones cut to pieces by UPC fighters. One saw his brother buried alive after he was forced to dig his own grave, Suprun said.
Today marked the conclusion of opening statements. The first prosecution witness will start giving evidence on September 15.