Bosco Ntaganda testified in his own defense at the International Criminal Court (ICC), with his testimony running for a total of six weeks from June 14, 2017 to mid-September 2017. The former commander in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebel group, who surrendered to the court in 2013, faces 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed by him and his fighters during a 2002-2003 ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the start of his testimony, Ntaganda spoke about his birth in Rwanda, education in Congo, and how the Rwandan genocide in 1994 motivated him to fight against injustice in order not to “see any other community experience what my own community [the Tutsi ethnic group] went through.” He went on to defend his record as a disciplined soldier and commander, and professed innocence of the charges against him: “I, Ntaganda, I am not guilty of anything. I do not have anything to be guilty about. I am not a criminal; I am a revolutionary.”
This article summarizes Ntaganda’s testimony that was given in open court. (See here for an overview of the prosecution’s case against Ntaganda).
What inspired Ntaganda to Join Rebel Groups
Ntaganda recounted that when the Rwanda Patriotic Army (RPA) rebel group led by Paul Kagame (current president of Rwanda) took power in Kigali, the deposed army and its allied militia known as the Interahamwe, who had perpetuated the Rwandan genocide, fled to Congo. In that country, they participated in a campaign supported by dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s government to kill Tutsis. The campaign forced thousands of Tutsis to flee Congo, mostly for Rwanda and Uganda, with those unable to escape getting “exterminated” primarily by former soldiers of the deposed Rwandan regime. This prompted him to leave the Rwandan army to join an armed insurrection in Congo because he wanted to contribute to the overthrow of Mobutu and “enable refugees to resettle in their homes and live in peace.”
Ntaganda claimed that he was a peacemaker and a disciplinarian, who fought against armed groups that perpetuated discrimination and attacks on members of the Tutsi and Hema ethnic groups in parts of eastern Congo. He said he was later inspired to spearhead the formation of a new fighting group in the region by the example of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who he said started rebellion with 27 men and then managed to topple the government.
About Rape and Sexual Relations in the UPC militia
Among the charges against Ntaganda are rape and sexual slavery of child soldiers in the UPC by other UPC militia members. Aformer insider in UPC testified for the prosecution that militia commanders raped female recruits; while another testified that female fighters were not in a position to turn down sexual advances from their UPC superiors. According to the prosecution, rape by the group’s soldiers was “encouraged, promised, and envisaged” as the UPC considered women to be “spoils of war.” The prosecution said Ntaganda himself sexually exploited women.
However, the accused claimed he prohibited sexual relations among members of the UPC militia and the policy was respected by all troops. “At all assemblies of recruits, I told male recruits that nobody could sleep with a female recruit. It was forbidden,” he said. He also said he emphasized to all recruits that since the reason they had joined the group was to protect civilians, no fighter was allowed to become pregnant or to have a sexual relationship with another fighter. This message was “repeated on several occasion and it was respected.”
Ntaganda recounted two cases of attempted rape that were reported at the group’s training camp in Mandro. In one case, an officer who attempt to commit rape was “arrested and punished.” The second case of attempted rape involved one of Ntaganda’s female bodyguards. Ntaganda said he arrested the culprit and “flogged him in front of my troops.”
As additional protective measures, Ntaganda said the sleeping quarters of the UPC’s “few” female recruits were located 100 meters away from those occupied by their male counterparts. He added that female recruits were also assigned officers and a nurse “responsible for protecting” them.
Use of Child Soldiers
With the charges against Ntaganda, including the enlisting and use of child soldiers in armed conflict, the defense was eager to punch holes in the testimony of those who testified as former child soldiers in the group and those who alleged rape and sexual relations involving UPC militia members.
Ntaganda said the UPC screened its recruits to weed out individuals who did not meet requirements, with recruits deemed too young to serve in the group sent back to their homes. However, he did not state what exact age was considered unacceptable for admission into the militia.
He recalled how he ordered commanders at Rwampara training camp to “return all the small recruits to their homes as soon as possible.” Those who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods were immediately taken back to their homes, while arrangements were made for the safe return within three to four days of those that lived farther away.
He recounted that prior to enlistment, UPC recruits at the Mandro training camp were assessed visually and challenged to complete difficult tasks to determine if they were old enough and physically able to participate in combat. Those deemed “unfit” for recruitment were asked to go home. He said recruits at the camp joined the UPC voluntarily with support from their families.
Ntaganda denied knowledge of the existence of child soldiers among the 700 Congolese militia forces trained by the Ugandan government.
Punishing Errant Fighters
The prosecution contended that the UPC did not enforce discipline among its fighters. It added that since the UPC did not pay its fighters salaries, it condoned a system where soldiers and commanders grabbed money and property from civilians as “payment.” To the contrary, Ntaganda said he enforced discipline in the militia but was only able to punish crimes that came to his attention. “Offenses brought to our attention were punished. It was not possible for me to punish anyone without having information that such and such a person had committed such and such an offense,” he said.
Asked by the prosecution whether he investigated any ethnically motivated attacks, Ntaganda stated that the UPC provided protection to all ethnic groups in Congo’s Ituri district, and there were no campaigns against civilians of Lendu ethnicity.
“In my capacity as the commander in the FPLC, and in line with our ideology, I never heard of any cases involving [UPC] attacks on the population,” Ntaganda said. When he heard of any such incidents, he issued punishments: “You can look at my log book. When I knew that incidents had taken place, I hurried to intervene.” He said each battalion, brigade, and sector within the UPC militia had a disciplinary council responsible for maintaining discipline.
Under questioning by defense lawyers about communication logs regarding the execution of two UPC soldiers by firing squad, Ntaganda stated that the two soldiers had killed civilians and the executions were carried out publicly “to show that such acts were contrary to the ideology of the UPC.”
Did Ntaganda Murder a Priest?
Prosecutors say that on November 25, 2002, Ntaganda personally detained a priest, Boniface Bwanalonga, and three nuns. He allegedly interrogated them and then shot the priest and ordered his bodyguards to rape the nuns. Ntaganda denied these accusations. He said the priest was arrested during field operations by UPC fighters. Three nuns in the priest’s company at the time of his arrest volunteered to escort him to the militia group’s camp. “They refused to leave the priest when he was arrested in the bush and decided to remain close to him,” he said.
Although Ntaganda conceded that he was introduced to the priest and “discussed a few matters with him,” he denied knowledge about the circumstances under which he died. He testified that he learned about Bwanalonga’s death while he was reviewing unspecified documents following his arrival at the ICC. The prosecution contends that Ntaganda killed the priest because he was accused of collaborating with Lendu combatants who were fighting against the UPC militia.
Ntaganda denied giving orders to his troops to rape the nuns, who the prosecution alleges were being held captive in the apartment in Mongbwalu where Ntaganda was staying. He said, “A commander such as myself could not have given an order to rape nuns. I would never have said that.”
Ntaganda also denied shooting dead a UPC militia fighter for allegedly refusing to participate in combat operations. He rejected prosecution claims that the militia shot dead fighters who were caught while attempting to desert.
According to prosecution evidence, a former child soldier 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.
The charges against Ntaganda are for individual criminal responsibility as a direct perpetrator, indirect co-perpetrator, and military commander. During his testimony, he denied claims by the prosecution that he was the de facto military leader of the UPC. He stated that, during 2002 and 2003, he remained subordinate to the UPC’s chief of general staff, Floribert Kisembo. He added that he was also subordinate to Thomas Lubanga who was the group’s political leader.
In the concluding parts of his testimony, Ntaganda denied asking any individuals to “mislead” or “lie” before the court through his communications from the court’s detention center. He stated that when he would speak to someone who was with him during the conflict, he would ask “to be reminded of certain events.” He added that, in some cases, he would ask his contacts to help locate individuals who were involved in certain UPC military operations, and “put them in touch” with resource persons who were working with his defense team.
In 2015, judges granted the prosecution access to Ntaganda and Thomas Lubanga’s non-privileged conversations at the detention center dating from March 2013. This was intended to aid investigations into allegations of witness tampering pursuant to Article 70 of the Rome Statute. The prosecution later disclosed 20,968 records to the defense, which it said indicated “serious and concerning attempts” by Ntaganda and Lubanga to interfere with prosecution investigations and witnesses, and to coach potential defense witnesses.