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Expert Explains Psychological Harm Suffered by Victims of Sexual Violence in Congo

Last week, a psychotherapist testified about the psychological harm suffered by four prosecution witnesses who were victims of sexual violence by war crimes accused Bosco Ntaganda’s Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) troops.

Maeve Lewis, an Irish expert in psychotherapy, assessed four individuals who were reportedly raped by UPC troops in 2002 and 2003 during armed conflict in Congo’s Ituri district. Lewis produced four reports from these assessments, which prosecutors tendered into evidence.

Testifying at Ntaganda’s International Criminal Court (ICC) trial Thursday and Friday, Lewis gave the specific details of her assessment of each individual in closed session. Under cross-examination by the defense in open court, she said her reports were based on interviews with the unnamed individuals, each of which lasted an average of four hours.

The basis of her assessments of the psychological harm or consequences was the individuals’ own accounts of symptoms and not the “veracity” of the alleged events. The expert said a routine post-trauma stress assessment relies on “self-reporting using a post-trauma check list” and that is what the prosecution asked her to do.

In a report on one of the individuals, Lewis concluded that the account of the witness of the events and psychological consequences were “coherent and credible.” Asked by defense lawyer Christopher Gosnell whether she had any other information beyond the statements by the witness to draw that assertion, Lewis replied in the negative. “The documents supplied by the court and interview with the witness is what I was relying on,” she said.

Lewis dismissed defense assertions that the ability of the individuals to identify their attackers was “questionable” because they may have been attacked at night “in badly lit areas,” and the victims did not always understand the language spoken by the attackers.

Lewis said she was “very surprised” by the victims’ level of recollection. “One woman knew the [attacker] before the events. Another stated she wasn’t able to identify the person who perpetrated the assault. The third woman was able to name one person but not two others,” said the expert. However, she conceded that the identity of the perpetrators was not something she discussed with the individuals in great details as she “wasn’t there as an investigator.”

Gosnell asked the expert whether the use of an interpreter during her interviews with the four victims posed any difficulties in making an assessment.

“I believe in the interviews conducted in the DRC. I put the women at ease to the extent possible in an anxious situation for them. Present at those interviews were psycho-social associates of the court with whom witnesses were familiar and that helped reduce anxiety,” she said.

Lewis is the third expert witness to testify in Ntaganda’s trial for crimes reportedly committed by his soldiers and himself while he was UPC’s deputy chief of staff. Last February, judges ruled that Lewis and two other experts could testify in the trial and her reports could tendered into evidence. Ntaganda’s lawyers had challenged Lewis’s evidence, arguing that she had provided an opinion on the credibility of the prosecution witnesses which exceeded the terms of the expertise requested by the prosecution and “infringed” on the chamber’s role to determine the credibility of witnesses.

In their ruling, judges determined that Lewis’s assessment report on the four prosecution witnesses was relevant. Nonetheless, judges agreed with the defense regarding Lewis’s opinion on the credibility of the witnesses. They stated that they would “disregard” any such conclusions in the report, and her in-court testimony should not cover aspects of whether or not the symptoms and responses of the witnesses in question were consistent with those of other persons who have experienced such events.

Meanwhile, on Thursday judges also heard the brief testimony of Witness P850, who testified with protective measures including image and voice distortion. He testified about the origins of the conflict between the Lendu and Hema ethnic groups in Ituri. Witness P850 said Lendu combatants allied with the Congolese Popular Army (APC) to drive the Hema out of Mongbwalu town in 2002. He said APC and Lendu combatants killed Hema civilians who stayed in the town after it fell under their control.

According to the witness, who said he worked as a gold digger in Mongbwalu at the time, the APC forced women to go topless and subjected civilians to forced labor, including to repair roads. Those who broke the rules were flogged or had their ears cut off, he said.

Hearings continue on July 6 with the testimony of a new prosecution witness.

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