Anonymous Witnesses Prompt Concerns

Ituri villagers fear that ICC trials cannot be fair if witness identities remain secret.

Anonymous Witnesses Prompt Concerns

Ituri villagers fear that ICC trials cannot be fair if witness identities remain secret.

Villagers in Ituri province in north-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, which has suffered years of ethnic fighting, have voiced concerns about the use of anonymous witnesses in the trial of Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court, ICC.

So far 30 witnesses have appeared in the trial, 25 of whom have received protective measures in order to conceal their identities. Their names are never used, and their voices and faces are distorted.

There is a fear that if the identities of witnesses testifying against certain militia groups are made public, they may be subject to revenge attacks.

"Our experience is that there is often a persistent threat to those associated with investigations into human rights abuses," Anneke van Woudenberg, a senior researcher for the DRC at Human Rights Watch, told IWPR, "Witness protection programmes are essential to fair and impartial trials throughout the world."

But people in Bogoro – a town that suffered appalling atrocities in 2003, when militiamen killed and raped civilians, leaving some imprisoned in a room filled with corpses – say they need to know the identities of people testifying in trials. Proceedings at the court in The Hague are broadcast locally.

Concealing witness identities has contributed to local suspicion that the ICC trials are unfair, with some claiming that witness testimony is manipulated by payment from either the prosecution or defence.

“We want to know who these witnesses are,” Jean de Dieu Ngabu Safari, a teacher in Bogoro, told ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, when he visited the region between July 8 and 11. “They are from Kinshasa and other provinces, but speak on behalf of Bogoro and other places in Ituri.”

Moreno-Ocampo met leaders of ethnic groups in the region, human rights activists, and other local groups. He also spoke with people in Bunia town, Bogoro and Zumbe villages.

Lubanga, whose trial began in January, is from Djiba in Ituri district. He is charged with recruiting, conscripting, and using child soldiers in the ethnic conflicts that raged throughout the Ituri region between 2002 and 2003.The trials of two other men also from Ituri - Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo - are due to begin in September.

One resident of Bogoro, Mateso, told IWPR, “We want to know who the parents of these witnesses are and if possible their village or town ... If the ICC continues working in this way, we will request that the trial be transferred here.”

Mateso warned about the dangers of a return to conflict if the ICC is not perceived to be conducting its trials in a fair and transparent way.

“Our prisoners, whether they are from the Lendu or Hema tribes, do not know those witnesses who are hiding themselves behind the curtain and changing their voices,” he said. “This injustice is hurting us a lot.”

Moreno-Ocampo was asked to explain how decisions about witness protection are made.

“We make an assessment of witnesses’ risk,” he said, “We have to know if anybody can attack them. We need to know if they are traumatised or not. Women who have been raped, or parents who have seen their children killed, cannot appear before the trial.”

But Jean-Bosco Lalo, president of the Civil Society of Bunia, pointed out that witnesses who publicly testified in previous trials held in Bunia, involving people who were allegedly directly responsible for committing crimes on the ground, did not face any problems.

Moreno-Ocampo hit back by saying, “It is my responsibility to protect the witnesses and I will not reveal their names. But the accused and the defence lawyers know them.”

Catherine Mabille, Lubanga’s defence lawyer, told IWPR that she recognised the problems of witness anonymity, but said that the lawyers were not responsible for the situation.

“Information was given to judges that witnesses were running a risk of pressure and threats,” she said. “That is the reason why they decided some protection measures for witnesses.”

Mateso claimed that there have been cases of witnesses giving false testimony in return for financial gain.

“We are not paying any person who gives testimony,” Moreno-Ocampo said. “We are only paying money for the trip to Holland and other places where the witness is in a system of protection.”

Van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch thinks that more could be done to alleviate the fears of local villages that justice is not being done by making the trials easier to follow.

"I have seen proceedings, with voice and face distortion measures in place, that are almost impossible to follow," she said. "The French voice-over is often too fast and uses language that is too complex. This has no doubt contributed to the overall sense of injustice."

On July 14, the prosecution rested its case in the Lubanga trial. The defence is expected to begin its case in October, after the summer recess, though a precise date has not yet been set.

Jacques Kahorha is an IWPR trainee.
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