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With Focus on One DRC Rebel Chief, Others Forgotten

As arrest calls focus on militia leader Bosco Ntaganda, another major rebel commander is receiving far less attention.
By Blake Evans-Pritchard, Mélanie Gouby
  • As villagers continue to flee their homes in the DRC’s North Kivu province, pressure is mounting on indicted militia leader Bosco Ntaganda. (Photo: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)
    As villagers continue to flee their homes in the DRC’s North Kivu province, pressure is mounting on indicted militia leader Bosco Ntaganda. (Photo: UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti)

Pressure is mounting for the arrest of Congolese militia commander Bosco Ntaganda, with the International Criminal Court, ICC, seeking new charges and President Joseph Kabila spelling out that he wants him captured.

Until he mutinied this spring, Ntaganda served Kabila as a general in the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, as a result of efforts to neutralise rebel groups through reintegration.

Now the tide has turned against him. Kabila announced on April 11 that he was seeking Ntaganda’s arrest. The net tightened on May 14, when the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, filed a request for additional charges against Ntaganda, in light of evidence that emerged during the trial of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, whom the ICC convicted of war crimes in March. (See Prosecutor Seeks New Charges in DRC.)

While Ntaganda is under increasing scrutiny, Laurent Nkunda – another former rebel leader who the Congolese authorities believe may be responsible for similar crimes – has not been charged with any offence by the ICC. He has been held under house arrest in neighbouring Rwanda for more than three years.

NTAGANDA A REBEL LEADER AND REGULAR SOLDIER BY TURN

The ICC charged Ntaganda in 2006 with using child soldiers under the age of 15; the charges were made public in April 2008.

The new accusations against Ntaganda refer to murder, persecution based on ethnicity, rape, sexual slavery and pillage in eastern DRC’s Ituri region between 2002 and 2003. The ICC had previously indicted him for recruiting and using child soldiers.

At the time of the indictment, Ntaganda was military commander of the National Congress for the Defence of the People, CNDP, an ethnic-Tutsi dominated militia in the North Kivu region of eastern DRC. The CNDP was led by Laurent Nkunda and had close ties to Rwanda, which has a Tutsi-led government.

CNDP combatants were drafted into the Congolese national army in 2009, as part of a deal in which the group renounced its paramilitary force while its political wing took part in national elections. Ntaganda was made a regular army general. (See DRC Army's Loyalties Uncertain Around Election.)

The ICC allegations relate to 2002 and 2003, before Ntaganda was involved with the CNDP. At the time of the abuses he is accused of, he was a senior figure in a different rebel force, the Union of Congolese Patriots, whose leader Lubanga was convicted by the ICC in March, again on child soldier charges relating to conflict in the same region – Ituri – and over the same period. (See On Home Ground, Lubanga Verdict Falls Flat.)

Despite efforts to disperse ex-CNDP men into regular army units, Ntaganda retained their loyalty and as a senior commander and Kabila supporter, remained an influential figure in North Kivu despite the existence of an ICC warrant for his rest.

However, in late March or early April 2012, he led his men in a mutiny, so that they now form a separate rebel force again. According to the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, his decision to stage this rebellion was prompted by “government attempts to weaken his control and increased calls for his arrest for alleged war crimes”.

Gautier Muhindo Misonia, coordinator of the Centre for Research on the Environment, Democracy and Human Rights, a local NGO, said the ICC’s continued focus on Ntaganda had helped sustain international pressure for his arrest.

Since April, Human Rights Watch alleges, his militia has built up its strength by recruiting hundreds of new members, including civilians in Rwanda who were forced into service.

“Witnesses said that some recruits were summarily executed on the orders of Ntaganda’s forces when they tried to escape,” Human Rights Watch alleged in a June 4 report based on field research carried out the previous month.

In a recent BBC interview, Ntaganda denied the charges the ICC has brought against him and accused the court of an anti-African bias.

“Are there people from Ituri that accuse me? Does the prosecutor in the Hague love the people of Ituri more than the Iturians themselves? It is lies, it is lies; they should stop lying to Africans,” he told the BBC.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the ICC prosecutor’s application for more charges to be included in the indictment was “a very positive development”.

“Not only is this of crucial importance for Ituri, but it also sends out the message that the ICC is continuing to watch [the situation] and, if things change, is prepared to add fresh charges,” she said.

At the same time, Van Woudenberg expressed disappointment that charges levelled against Ntaganda were still limited to events in the Ituri region, rather than his stronghold North Kivu.

“The prosecutor has not yet sought to add charges that relate to Ntaganda’s crimes committed in the Kivus, and I think that this is really a missed opportunity,” she said. “I very much hope that the prosecutor will reconsider this and seek to add additional charges – including what is now happening in the region, where Ntaganda continues to be involved in the recruitment of children by force.”

The ICC did not respond to IWPR’s request for comment on the scope of the indictment, although the prosecutor is understood to be monitoring the situation in North and South Kivu.

In its June 4 report, Human Rights Watch accused Rwandan officials of assisting Ntaganda in his current mutiny.

“The Rwandan government should immediately stop all support to Ntaganda and assist in his arrest,” the New York-based advocacy group added.

A United Nations report leaked in May also suggested that the Rwandan authorities were backing Ntaganda. In a press statement, the Rwandan government denied the allegations, calling them “false and dangerous”.

Misonia said that if Ntaganda was captured, it would contribute to peace and stability in eastern DRC.

“I think that if Ntaganda is arrested there are still things that can change,” he said. “True, Rwanda could collaborate with someone else, but there are several groups and army chiefs that would ask questions.”

NKUNDA LIFTED OUT OF THE PICTURE

The ICC has sometimes been accused of a lack of balance in its approach to militia groups in DRC. It has issued arrest warrants for leaders of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, FDLR, an ethnic Hutu group opposed to the Rwandan as well as DRC governments, but not of the Tutsi-led CNDP. Ntaganda does not count in this respect, as he is charged with abuses that predate his joining that group.

“I do not want to judge the judicial process – it is up to the OTP to conduct its own investigations – but we have decried this apparent imbalance,” Misonia said.

If balance is sought, indicting CNDP founder Nkunda might help. His name has featured in ICC investigations, but the Hague court has not issued a warrant for his arrest.

Nkunda is wanted by the Congolese authorities for alleged human rights abuses, including the recruitment of child soldiers. They have requested his extradition from Rwanda, which detained him in January 2009.

A 2008 conflict that pitted Nkunda’s forces against the Congolese army and allied local militias called the Mai Mai resulted in numerous civilian casualties and forced an estimated quarter of a million people to flee their homes.

Thomas D’Acquin, president of a coalition of civil society organisations in DRC’s North Kivu province, believes that the ICC should investigate the possible involvement of Nkunda’s troops in violent incidents like the killing of 150 people in the village of Kiwanja.

“If people want evidence, they only have to come to us. All these people must answer for their actions,” he said. “We think it is very important that the international community looks at both Ntaganda and Nkunda.”

Nkunda has denied any link to the deaths in Kiwanja.

“The killers are well known,” he told IWPR shortly before his arrest in Rwanda. He blamed the DRC army and allied local paramilitaries known as Mai Mai.

In the absence of an ICC arrest warrant for Nkunda, the Rwandan state is under little pressure to do anything about him.

“Rwandan courts cannot try Nkunda for crimes that he committed on Congolese soil against the Congolese people,” D’Acquin said. “How can Rwanda refuse to extradite Nkunda so that he can answer for his actions before Congolese courts? The ICC should take up the situation as it is within its jurisdiction.”

Nkunda is believed to be under house arrest somewhere in Kigali, though his exact location remains undisclosed.

His former lawyer Stéphane Bourgon is critical of the way the Rwandan authorities handled the case, in particular by preventing him from seeing his client.

“My goal was for Laurent Nkunda to either be informed of the reasons for his arrest and detention and to be brought before a judge, or to be released forthwith,” Bourgon said. “I filed several motions before several courts and tribunals in Rwanda. I even petitioned the Rwandan Supreme Court, which ruled that it did not have jurisdiction to hear an application alleging unlawful detention and sent me back down to the military court, which then refused to hear me because I did not speak Kinyarwanda.”

Rwandan officials have consistently refused to comment on Nkunda’s detention.

Bourgon and other commentators suspect it suited both the Rwandan and DRC to have Nkunda taken off the scene in eastern DRC and placed in the obscurity of house arrest. This both diminished the rebel threat to the Congolese government and removed a player seen by many as a Rwandan proxy.

Bourgon claimed the international community was aware of behind-the-scenes diplomacy that resulted in Nkunda’s indefinite detention, but chose to ignore it.

“With a situation like this, it allows [officials] to reach such an agreement and arbitrarily arrest and detain Nkunda... because they want him out of play,” he said.

Blake Evans-Pritchard is an IWPR trainer in The Hague. Mélanie Gouby is an IWPR contributor in eastern DRC.

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