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Ntaganda Ends Hunger Strike, Gives Defense Lawyers Mandate to Represent Him

Former Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda has ended his hunger strike and given his lawyers the mandate to represent him during his absence from the courtroom, putting an end to a 14-day boycott of proceedings in his trial at the International Criminal Court.

Ntaganda, whose hunger strike was provoked by an order from judges to maintain restrictions on his communications and contacts, apparently had a change of heart after court officials arranged for his wife to visit him for eight days this week, in conditions he deemed acceptable.

In court this afternoon, defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon announced that Ntaganda had resumed eating and signed a waiver requesting to be excused from attending proceedings until Thursday, September 29, to enable him to attend a family visit and recover from the hunger strike. He said the accused had given the defense team instructions to represent him.

In granting Ntaganda’s request for leave of absence, judges noted that family visits should ordinarily not be scheduled to clash with proceedings, but there were “exceptional” circumstances in the present case. “The chamber notes that for the period in question, Ntaganda will follow proceedings and instruct counsel to ensure that his rights are represented. The chamber considers it appropriate to exceptionally grant this request and permit Ntaganda not to attend hearings from September 21 to 29,” ruled Presiding Judge Robert Fremr.

On September 8, Ntaganda refused to attend his trial hearings and went on a hunger strike. He also reportedly refused to take medicine prescribed to him, returned to detention center officials the telephone close to his cell by which he previously communicated, and declined to authorize any member of the defense team to represent him during his absence.

The impasse stems from an August 18, 2015 order that placed restrictions on Ntaganda’s contacts after judges found reasonable grounds to believe that he personally engaged in witness coaching and also directed his associates to do so. Under restrictions imposed on Ntaganda then, and maintained in a September 7 ruling, Ntaganda is permitted to speak to his children through his wife and to record messages to be played to his children after review of their content by the court’s Registry.

Under those restrictions, the judges considered that Ntaganda’s rights to privacy and family life were being appropriately balanced with the objectives of protecting witnesses, preventing breaches of confidentiality, and ensuring the integrity of the proceedings.

However, Ntaganda argued that restricting his contacts and communication was mistreatment at a “psychological level.” He said he had not seen his children since his surrender to the court in March 2013. Whereas preparations were underway for three of his seven children to visit him in December, he said, if that visit went ahead it would not be 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.

He said a visit under such conditions would traumatize his 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 wrote in a statement to court last week.

Following Ntaganda’s boycott of proceedings, judges ordered his defense team to represent his interests as prosecution witnesses continued testifying. Court officials were unable to transport Ntaganda to the court room on medical grounds, and despite a video link having been set up at the detention center to enable him follow the proceedings remotely, he declined to appear in the video room.Nonetheless, four prosecution witnesses gave testimony in the accused’s absence. Today, a new prosecution witness took the witness stand but he was mostly questioned in closed session. The witness continues testifying tomorrow morning.