The first witness to testify in Bosco Ntaganda’s defense at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has recounted how Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) commanders turned him away when he volunteered to join the militia group because they deemed him to be underage.
Olivier Maki Dhekana, who began testifying yesterday, stated that his motivation for joining the UPC was to protect members of his Gegere ethnic group, who were under attack from rival groups during 2002 and 2003. Ntaganda, who was the deputy chief of staff of the militia group, is on trial facing 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including enlisting and using children under the age of 15 years in an armed conflict.
However, during cross-examination prosecution lawyer Eric Iverson put it to Dhekana that perhaps he was turned away from the militia’s Mandro training camp on instructions from Ntaganda, who was a neighbor to the witness.
While acknowledging that Ntaganda was his next-door neighbor, Dhekana denied Iverson’s allegation, recalling that UPC commander who dismissed him told him, “You are still small, go back home.” At the time Dhekana was in his second year of secondary school, but he did not state in open court how old he was.
The prosecution lawyer asked his subsequent questions about the witness’s father, his political affiliations, and business undertakings, in closed session. Dhekana testified via video link from an undisclosed location without any protective measures to shield his identity from the public.
In his testimony yesterday, Dhekana, who is also known as Witness D210, stated that because he arrived at the UPC training camp in Mandro late in the day, and despite being turned down, he stayed the night and left the following morning.
Asked by defense lawyer Christopher Gosnell if he saw any recruits younger than him at the camp, Dhekana replied that he did not know the age of the other recruits, but they were older than him. The witness said he traveled from Bunia town, where the UPC was headquartered, to Mandro along with two unnamed individuals who also sought to enlist with the UPC but were rejected as well.
While former UPC leaders do not deny that there were child soldiers in their group, they argue that some of the children volunteered to join, while others were asked to join by their parents in order to gain protection from ongoing armed conflict or to defend their communities against rival ethnic militia.
Ntaganda denies all 18 charges against him and will take the witness stand in his own defense next month.
Hearings are scheduled to continue tomorrow.