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Alleged Rape of Child Soldiers the Focus of Ntaganda’s Latest Witness

The alleged rape of child soldiers in a Congolese militia was the focus of Thursday’s testimony by a witness called by lawyers for former rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda, who has been on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since September 2015, is charged with 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the rape and sexual abuse of child soldiers.

Witness D251, who served with the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebel group, disputed the account of a prosecution witness known as Witness P10, an alleged former UPC child soldier, who said there was sexual abuse within the UPC. She testified largely in closed session.

According to the defense, the testimony of Witness D251 – a female fighter in the UPC during 2002 – contradicted prosecution evidence about Ntaganda’s treatment of female soldiers and escorts, and the alleged rape or sexual abuse of Ntaganda’s bodyguards. Her evidence also related to specific prosecution witnesses who testified about rape and sexual abuse of child soldiers, such as Witness P10.

When Witness P10 testified in Ntaganda’s trial in November 2015, she said her former UPC commanders raped her. At her initial appearance, she failed to testify despite being shielded from Ntaganda’s view. Ntaganda agreed to leave the courtroom and follow the proceedings remotely.

Witness P10, who said she was conscripted into the UPC at the age of 13, first testified before the court in 2009 in the trial of Thomas Lubanga, the group’s former commander-in-chief who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence over the recruitment and use of child soldiers in armed conflict.

In her testimony in Lubanga’s trial, Witness P10 said UPC commanders routinely had forced sex with female recruits. She also said recruits, some younger than 13 years of age, were subjected to brutal training and indoctrination.

Lubanga’s lawyers suggested that Witness P10 was an adult when she joined the UPC in 2002 and that she had been a member of a rival militia since 1999. In the Lubanga judgement, judges stated that they could not rely on “many aspects” of her testimony due to contradictions in her testimony and the documentary evidence suggesting that she was under 15 years of age when she served in the UPC.

In the current trial, defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon claimed Witness P10’s testimony about Ntaganda’s role in committing atrocities during the 2002-2003 armed ethnic conflict in Congo’s Ituri district was motivated by personal gain. According to Bourgon, the witness made new claims in order to regain victim status in Ntaganda’s trial, which she had lost in the Lubanga trial. The defense said it would impeach the witness.

Witness D251 was added late to the defense’s witness list due to difficulties in contacting her. Prosecutors opposed her admission after the accused had completed testifying.

Judges ruled that Witness D251 was expected to provide exculpatory evidence on various issues of significance to the case, including Ntaganda’s treatment of female escorts, and his attitude toward relationships between soldiers and female bodyguards. They also granted a defense request for the witness to appear via video link.

However, judges declined to admit Witness D251’s statement recorded last October.  The prosecution had objected to the defense request to submit the recorded statement, arguing that she should testify orally because her evidence was “materially in dispute and central to the accused’s case,” contradicted “highly incriminating” testimony of other witnesses, including Witness P10, and related to 15 of the 18 charges against Ntaganda.