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Ntaganda’s Lawyers Support Holding Closing Statements in Bunia, Congo

International Criminal Court (ICC) judges trying former rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda are considering hearing the closing statements in his trial from Africa, either in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the crimes he is on trial for were committed or “at a location relatively proximate to it.”

In response, Ntaganda’s lawyers have said they support the closing statements being heard in the eastern Congo town of Bunia, which they termed “the place closest to the persons most interested” by Ntaganda’s trial.

However, they warned that taking the hearing far from Bunia, for example to Congo’s capital Kinshasa or to Arusha, Tanzania “would not be meaningful and [would] actually defeat the purpose sought.” Arusha, where the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) sat, has previously been suggested as a host for hearings related to other trials conducted by the ICC.

“In the event holding the closing statements in Bunia is not possible, these hearings must be held in or very close to one of the locations where the events giving rise to the charges laid against Mr. Ntaganda are alleged to have taken place,” said defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon.

He added that, should judges insist on Ntaganda being present in the region during the hearing, the court might fail to hold the proposed in situ hearing. Accordingly, he said, after discussions with Ntaganda, the defense would not request his presence at the hearing in Africa but would want him to be part of the proceedings via video link.

Ntaganda, who is on trial for 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, has been in detention in The Hague since he surrendered to the court in March 2013, seven years after the court issued its first warrant of arrest against him. The defense case is expected to close within the next few weeks, which could pave the way for a possible hearing in Africa this year.

However, holding the hearing in Congo or another location in Africa could prove difficult, judging from similar previous attempts. Prior to the September 2015 start of Ntaganda’s trial, judges considered having the opening statements delivered from Bunia. However, the idea was abandoned for various reasons, such as security challenges in Bunia and the negative effect that Ntaganda’s presence in the town could have on the safety and well-being of witnesses and victims.

Similarly, judges in the trials of Kenyan Deputy President William Samoei Ruto and radio journalist Joshua arap Sang, as well as that of former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen, considered conducting part or all the trials in situ but abandoned these proposals. These hearings all went ahead in The Hague.

In the Kenyan case, factors considered in deciding against holding part of the trial in Kenya or Arusha included security, the potential impact on witnesses and victims if the trial was held outside The Hague, and the cost of holding the trial in a different venue. In Ongwen’s case, judges decided against holding opening statements in Uganda due to security concerns and the judges’ heavy workload in The Hague.

Similarly in the trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba, due to difficulties defense witnesses encountered in travelling to the court in The Hague, judges explored the possibility of hearing some of their testimony at the ICTR in Arusha.

The ICC Registry asked judges to be granted up to February 8, 2018 to file its observations on the possibility of holding the closing statements in the Ntaganda trial in Africa. The prosecution’s submissions have not yet been made public.