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Judges Abandon Idea of Conducting Ntaganda Closing Statements in Congo

An endeavor by the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct part of a trial hearing in a situation country has failed once again, after judges trying former militia commander Bosco Ntaganda abandoned their intention to hold closing arguments in his trial in Congo.

In a March 16, 2018 decision, the judges said that because of “the present security situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo,” and “the preparation time required for any such hearing to be arranged,” they did not intend to recommend to the court’s Presidency that closing statements be held in situ. They added, however, that they may consider holding certain other future hearings in situ, if deemed appropriate and feasible.

The town of Bunia, which bore the brunt of the crimes for which Ntaganda is on trial, had been considered the most likely location for hosting the hearing. However, for the last two months villages surrounding Bunia have been rocked by ethnic conflict, which had reportedly killed up to 150 individuals and displaced more than 60,000.

Last month, defense lawyers supported the possibility of holding the hearing in Bunia. 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.”

“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,” defense lawyer Stéphane Bourgon said.

Ntaganda, the former deputy chief of staff of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia, is on trial at the ICC over 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which were allegedly committed in Congo’s Ituri district during 2002 and 2003. The current conflict around Bunia mirrors the one over which Ntaganda is on trial, as it has similarly pitted members of the Hema ethnic group against those of Lendu ethnicity.

This is the second attempt by judges trying Ntaganda to conduct part of the trial in Africa. The judges previously considered having the opening statements delivered from Bunia but abandoned the idea due to security challenges and the negative effect that Ntaganda’s presence in the town could have on the safety and well-being of witnesses and victims.

At the time, judges also stated that conducting the opening in Bunia would cost the court more than €600,000 (US$ 677,121), which could rise “unexpectedly,” and yet, given the length and nature of opening statements, the affected communities would have limited access to the proceedings.

Early last year, judges also declined a defense request for a judicial site visit to locations where Ntaganda and his troops allegedly committed crimes. The defense lawyers had proposed that the visit takes place before the start of the defense case in order to allow judges to gain knowledge of locations mentioned by prosecution witnesses. According to the judges, the defense did not clearly demonstrate “how the site visit would be of benefit to the Chamber in assessing specific facts and issues.”

The latest ruling by judges means that closing statements will be heard in The Hague at a date yet to be determined.