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Expert Concludes Testimony on Trauma

Canadian forensic psychologist John Charles Yuille has wrapped up his evidence on trauma at the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Bosco Ntaganda. The evidence by the expert witness aimed to provide the chamber with an understanding of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and memory patterns among individuals who suffered trauma, and how judges should evaluate the evidence of trauma victims based on an understanding of factors that play a role in creating memory. 

Dr. Yuille said memories by witnesses who faced trauma can take three general forms. They can be generally accurate, contain some inaccuracies due to misinterpretations, or be largely false as a deliberate attempt by a witness to provide a false representation of the past. “If a person is trying to tell the truth and they are properly interviewed, accuracy can be 80-85 percent,” he said but added that such statistics are not applicable to some witnesses.

The expert said when a person has PTSD, the symptoms are not always manifest to non-professionals. However, there are signs that can manifest when a witness who has PTSD is testifying about the traumatizing events. “The most obvious one is distress or anxiety or arousal. If a person has PTSD it means that the traumatic impact of the event has not been dealt with, and if they recall memory of the event it is extremely likely this will bring emotional content,” said Dr. Yuille. This can be characterized by a witness crying, showing signs of distress, or “shutting down emotionally.”

Under questioning by Sarah Pellet, a lawyer who represents more than 280 former child soldiers participating in the trial as victims, Dr. Yuille said there was little research on the psychological adjustment of individuals to being forced to participate in traumatic events over a period of time. “What we know elsewhere is that in order to survive or cope with such egregious circumstances, an accommodation has to occur…and the impact of such acts has to decline,” he explained.

He said that accommodation or adaptation can take many forms, but some kind of change is most likely to occur otherwise a person is going to live in state of both psychological and physical stress that is extremely damaging. According to the expert, in the instance of a person who has been raped by multiple rapists, “again this is an extremely egregious context in which a human being has to find a way to survive or cope.”

On the first day of his testimony, the expert explained that various factors affect memory patterns among individuals who faced trauma. He said some victims may have detailed, vivid, and fairly accurate memories, while others may have amnesia with no memory at all. Regarding the link between personality and reactions to trauma, he said “hyper-sensitive” individuals are easily traumatized, as opposed to individuals who able to mobilize psychological and physical resources to deal with the source of trauma.

The testimony of psychologists has featured prominently in trials at the ICC. In the Jean-Pierre Bemba trial, a counseling psychologist who conducted clinical and psychological assessments of three victims of sexual violence in the Central African Republic testified about trauma patterns she found.

Earlier in the Thomas Lubanga trial, a psychologist testified that witnesses suffering from PTSD found it difficult to tell their stories because recalling such traumatic moments could cause immense suffering to the witnesses. The suffering increases in relation to the severity of the trauma symptoms, she said. According to her, her testimony would help the judges determine the credibility of witnesses who speak quickly, are nervous, or otherwise comport themselves poorly when testifying. Rather than being indicative of lying, she said, this could be a normal reaction to discussing traumatic events.

For his part, Dr. Yuille advised that judges may not pay much attention to deviations by witness regarding timing or place or event. However, defense lawyer Christopher Gosnell countered that an untruthful witness who is consciously lying, or one suffering memory loss, are not likely to deviate from the core of their testimony.

In response to a question by the defense lawyer, the expert said he was not aware of any witnesses testifying in the Ntaganda trial who suffered PTSD.

“Your testimony shouldn’t be understood as an opinion on whether any witness in this case has memory patterns you’ve described?” asked Gosnell. The expert responded in the affirmative.

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 militia. The purported crimes were committed against civilians in Congo’s Ituri district during ethnic conflict in 2002 and 2003.

The trial continues on Monday, April 26, with the testimony of a new prosecution witness.