On Wednesday, former Congolese rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda denied shooting dead a rebel fighter of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia for allegedly refusing to participate in combat operations. While giving testimony in his own defense at the International Criminal Court (ICC), Ntaganda also rejected prosecution claims the militia in which he was a top commander shot dead fighters who were caught while attempting to desert.
“Is the information that you shot an individual who was 24 years old because he refused to participate in an operation true or not true?” asked prosecution lawyer Nicole Samson.
“I never executed any soldier from the UPC. I never killed a soldier who allegedly refused to go to the front,” replied Ntaganda.
Samson’s question was based on an interview a former UPC child soldier gave to United Nations (UN) officials during March of 2003. In the interview, excerpts of which were read out in court Wednesday afternoon, the former child soldier said the incident took place after the victim failed to explain his refusal to take part in combat operations.
In the interview, the unnamed individual claimed “Ntaganda coldly shot [the UPC fighter] in the head” despite the group’s political head, Thomas Lubanga, having recommended that the insubordinate soldier be subjected to flogging as punishment. The former UPC child soldier is also quoted as saying the execution “caused a lot of waves” in the rebel group but Ntaganda was “no stranger to these types of actions” as five other fighters suffered the same fate.
On Tuesday, Ntaganda denied that deserters from the UPC were shot – an allegation which has been made by various former members of the group who testified for the prosecution.
”Within the UPC not a single deserter was shot,” said Ntaganda in response to Samson’s question about the fate of deserters. “There were various [other] sorts of punishments. It all depended on the misdemeanor or offense.”
Ntaganda added that while discipline was strictly enforced within the UPC, with punishments for offenders including being required to do push-ups, roll on the ground, fetch water, and be subjected to flogging, none of the punishments were applied to “the point of hurting” an individual. “If I noticed a recruit was injured, I would punish the commander,” he added.
However, Samson put it to Ntaganda that excessive beating led to desertion by UPC troops, to which Ntaganda responded, “that is impossible.” He said he was not aware of any cases of desertion.
Samson then presented various communication logs of reported cases of desertion during November 2002. Ntaganda said this was the first time he was seeing these communications.
Ntaganda is on trial at the ICC for five counts of crimes against humanity: murder and attempted murder, rape, sexual slavery, persecution, and forcible transfer of the population. He is also charged with 13 counts of war crimes: murder and attempted murder; attacking civilians; rape; sexual slavery of civilians; pillaging; displacement of civilians; attacking protected objects; destroying the enemy’s property; and rape, sexual slavery, enlistment, and conscription of child soldiers under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities.
The alleged crimes were committed during his tenure as the deputy chief of staff of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), the armed wing of the UPC that was headed by Lubanga. Ntaganda and the group’s fighters purportedly committed the atrocities in Congo’s Ituri province during ethnic conflict between 2002 and 2003.
Prosecutors continue cross-examining Ntaganda tomorrow morning.