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Analysis of Satellite Images Highlights Difficulties in Collecting Evidence Years After the Crimes

An expert who analyzed satellite images of locations in the Democratic Republic of Congo where rebels allegedly destroyed houses has testified about the difficulties in reaching conclusions basing on images captured more than a decade ago.

The expert, who testified at Ntaganda’s International Criminal Court (ICC) trial, said some of the images showed evidence of destroyed or torched structures, but in most instances he could not draw conclusions as to the cause of the destruction or when it occurred.

Lars Bromley, a principal analyst and senior research adviser on human rights and security at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNITAR/UNOSAT), conceded that some of the conclusions in his report were “speculative.”

Last year, at the request of the prosecution, Bromley analyzed satellite images of various Congolese locations for evidence of destruction, burning, or damage to housing structures. The prosecution charges Ntaganda with various crimes, including forcible transfer of the population, attacking protected objects, destroying the enemy’s property, rape and sexual slavery of child soldiers.

Bromley analyzed images of the same locations taken in 2002 and 2003. The interval between the capture of two sets of images was in some instances 11 months.

“We didn’t have much choice of what we could get … whatever imagery was collected in 2002 and 2003 for whatever reasons, it was collected by the commercial companies, that is what we had to choose from,” said Bromley. He said the exercise could be more reliable if conducted in real time by telling satellite providers the images to collect. “If you’re dealing with an old issue like this one then you have to deal with what was collected then.”

The expert also stated that in some locations of interest in Congo, there were no images collected during 2002 and 2003, hence no satellite imagery analysis was conducted for such areas.

Nonetheless, some images indicated destruction of houses on the outskirts of Bunia town and other areas, such as Sayo and Mogbwalu. Some locations had partly destroyed structures, others showed ash and “blackened remains” in the 2003 images.

However, Bromley conceded that sometimes fires in eastern Congo are deliberately started to clear farming land. Responding to defense questioning, he also said it was possible that some structures had been deliberately removed.

“I cannot say for certain that destruction took place versus town development process for instance. We didn’t get into what might have happened. It was just assessing whether structures were gone and destroyed,” the expert said.

“The biggest drawback in the exercise is that you can’t tell when a structure was there and when it was destroyed,” noted the expert, referring to the range of time between the first and the second set of images was taken and the second. He added, “[Ideally] we want an image collected the day before and the day after the event in question. But going back to 2002 and 2003, given the number of satellites available at the time, that’s not likely in such an area” to have images taken at such regular intervals.

The defense lawyer suggested that even where burnt structures were located, the expert could not tell whether it was arson or not. The expert responded that images of Bunia show lots of burnt structures, but the landscape between them is not burnt, suggesting that someone moved with fire and burnt the structures one by one.

“In a cleared areas where there’s no structure, do you rightly conclude that possibly there was something before?” asked the defense.

Bromley replied, “I am looking at the area in general and seeing the patterns of housing and then seeing areas where … there’s indication of settlement such as roads, paths leading to roads, cleared areas, but no structure.”

Hearings are scheduled to continue tomorrow morning.