War crimes accused Bosco Ntaganda’s hunger strike, which started last Wednesday, brought proceedings in his trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to a standstill yesterday. Court officials were unable to transport the former Congolese rebel leader to the court room on medical grounds, and whereas a video link had been set up at the detention center to enable Ntaganda to address judges remotely, the hearings remained focused on his refusal to eat, attend trial, or authorize his lawyers to represent him in his absence.
In a hand-written statement to judges read out by defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon, Ntaganda said he had “lost hope” and was ready to die due to an order by judges to continue restricting his contacts and communication, which he described as mistreatment at a “psychological level.”
“I no longer have any hope of seeing my wife and children again under normal conditions…And I no longer have any hope concerning the result of the trial…I’ve been accused, tried, and convicted for having intimidating witnesses without trial and without me being able to defend myself” said Ntaganda. “[T]oday you are punishing me further on the basis of telephone conversations that took place 30 months ago.”
He said under restrictions imposed two years ago, he was only authorized to telephone his mother or wife twice a week on Tuesdays and Friday for a maximum duration of one hour per week. The conversations are actively monitored, and he is not permitted to discuss the trial. According to Ntaganda, the conversations are halted if the court-appointed interpreters do not understand what he is saying. Ntaganda said he also cuts conversations short in order to avoid being seen as disobeying restrictions. In one instance last week, Ntaganda purportedly hung up on his sister who “insisted” on speaking to him on his mother’s phone.
“I feel too ill to come to the court, I am too weak to come to court…I cannot overcome this ill feeling. Reading, religion, sport, work do help to relieve me in short moments, but the ill feeling nevertheless comes back…I have fought in the most difficult situations. I have survived extremely dangerous events that very few people can even imagine…I am not afraid of dying. However, despite the acceptable detention conditions in prison, I have never been mistreated at a psychological level in the way that I have since I have been in The Hague,” reads the statement in part.
Ntaganda said he had not seen his children since his surrender to the court in March 2013. Preparations are underway for three of his seven children to visit him in December. However, he said, should the visit go ahead, “that’s not a family visit” because there would be an interpreter and security guard present with a recording device. Furthermore, the visits would be restricted to four hours a day for a few days.
“[A] visit under such conditions would traumatize my children. And there’s my wife, who I can’t see privately. We are husband and wife, but I am forbidden from looking for support and comfort in the arms of my wife in private,” he said. Ntaganda cited the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba, who, when allegations of witness tampering were brought against him, had the “opportunity to defend himself” and “after a short period of time…continued to receive visits from members of his family normally.” He called upon judges to give him an opportunity to demonstrate that allegations against him as a “witness intimidator” were false.
“He [Ntaganda] has lost weight and slowed down physically,” stated defense lawyer Bourgon, who visited Ntaganda over the weekend. He said the physical and mental well-being of the accused were at stake, and he sought an adjournment until Monday next week. Specific confidential submissions by Bourgon were heard in a session only open to the registry, judges, and the defense.
In the afternoon, judges ordered the registry to expedite efforts to arrange for members of Ntaganda’s family to visit him. However, judges rejected a request by defense lawyers for an adjournment and directed the registry to conduct medical assessments of whether Ntaganda was fit to be transported to the courtroom. In the event he was deemed unfit to travel to the court, video link facilities would continue to be made available at the detention center for him to follow the proceedings.
In oral submissions, an official of the registry stated that Ntaganda’s situation was being closely monitored on a regular basis. Regarding family visits, he said they had the support of the Congolese government in the “complicated” process of obtaining passports and visas for Ntaganda’s children and were “making progress.”
Prosecution lawyer Nicole Samson said Ntaganda’s refusal to give mandate to his lawyers to represent him in his absence was “akin to obstructing proceedings” and the accused should be compelled to attend. She said Ntaganda’s current situation was “self-imposed” and dismissed its legitimacy as a medical condition.
Presiding Judge Robert Fremr noted that the decision to restrict Ntaganda’s contacts had a big impact on his life. However, the decision was aimed at preventing potential harm. “The situation may change after the end of the prosecution case or depending on how many witnesses will be called,” said the judge, adding that the decision did not relate to the substance of the charges the former Congolese rebel leader.
Hearings in the trial are scheduled to continue Wednesday morning with the testimony of a new prosecution witness under a protocol established last week, whereby Ntaganda’s lawyer represent his interests in his absence.