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Ntaganda’s Trial at the ICC Stalls Due to Unavailability of Defense Witnesses

The trial of former Congolese rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has stalled due to the unavailability of defense witnesses. At the end of Thursday’s hearing, Presiding Judge Robert Fremr announced that “it was not clear” whether proceedings in the trial would continue as scheduled following an email from the defense detailing challenges in getting witnesses to appear before the court.

According to the email, “due to events beyond its control,” the defense was unable to finalize review of evidence to be provided by an upcoming witness, referred to in court as Witness D-017. As such, the defense was not in a position to refer the witness to the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) on Friday, October 20, as it had planned, to facilitate his appearance before judges. Meanwhile, another scheduled witness, going by the pseudonym Witness D-214, will no longer be called to testify. It remains unclear why this individual has been removed from the defense’s list of witnesses.

Last month, the defense indicated that it intended to reduce the number of witnesses called to testify for Ntaganda. Lead defense counsel Stéphane Bourgon stated that the team would provide the details of the witnesses dropped from its initial list of more than 100. The defense expects to drop more than 11 witnesses, it said.

Earlier Thursday, Witness D-038 completed giving evidence in the trial. The witness was granted in-court protective measures including the use of a pseudonym, and image and voice distortion during public re-broadcast of his testimony. The bulk of Witness D-038’s testimony, which commenced on October 17, was heard in closed session.

The decision granting Witness D-038 protective measures indicates that the witness had expressed concerns about potential negative repercussions as a result of his appearance before the ICC. Defense lawyers argued that protective measures for Witness D-038 were warranted given the nature of his profession, through which he “travels widely and comes into contact with a large number of people.”

Furthermore, defense lawyers argued that Witness D-038’s testimony would include discussions of crimes allegedly committed by Lendu combatants and “reveal” his role during the 2002-2003 ethnic conflict in Congo’s Ituri province. Judges ruled in favor of the defense, finding that there was “an objectively justifiable risk” with respect to the witness’s security.

Ntaganda, a former top commander in the Union of Congolese Patriots, is on trial over crimes he and his troops allegedly committed, primarily against members of the Lendu ethnic group in Ituri. He has pleaded not guilty to 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity. His trial at the ICC started in September 2015.