Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

'King of Beasts' to Stand Trial

A Dutch court is to try a Congolese army officer suspected of war crimes in his country in the first such case of its kind.
By Karen Meirik

A former army colonel in the Congolese Garde Civil accused of rape and torture during the reign of Mobuto Sese Seko in the 1990s is slated to stand trial in The Netherlands next month.

The trial of the 51-year old suspect, known only by his initials SN and his nickname "Roi des Bêtes" (King of Beasts), will begin on January 7 in Rotterdam.

SN was arrested in late September in the town of Zandeweer, in the remote northern province Groningen after three Congolese witnesses informed police of his alleged crimes.

He was living there illegally, since his earlier request for political asylum had been refused based on suspicions that he committed war crimes.

"They [the witnesses] declared that they were tortured by or on the authority of SN who deliberately allowed the cruelties to take place," said the spokesman for prosecutors, Wim de Bruin.

The Dutch authorities said they had a right to try the Congolese war crimes suspect.

The Netherlands are one of 127 countries that has signed the 1984 UN Torture Convention - an agreement stating that torture is a universal crime and therefore so serious, that it will fall under universal jurisdiction.

In 1989, following ratification of the convention, The Netherlands passed a national implementation law enabling local authorities to prosecute and try anyone accused of crimes against humanity who shows up on Dutch soil.

Although the trial of the Roi des Betes marks the first time that a foreign suspect who allegedly committed crimes abroad is being tried in a Dutch court, it likely won't be the last.

As part of an effort to turn itself into a centre of international justice - The Netherlands already hosts the International Court of Justice, the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court - Dutch authorities in 1998 established a special police branch to prosecute people who are already suspected of war crimes in other countries.

SN allegedly committed these crimes in the 1990s as Mobutu Sese Seko's reign began to collapse in what was then Zaire. Members of the Garde Civile and the Special Presidential Division were considered the most loyal defenders of Mobutu.

The Netherland's new enthusiasm to implement the UN Convention on Torture means that Dutch courts could now try any war crimes suspect that sets foot on upon Dutch soil, said De Bruin.

This procedure, he said, is in line with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which provides that national courts have the primary responsibility for conducting prosecutions and that it can only act when they are unable or unwilling to investigate or prosecute.

In the past, The Netherlands tried to hold leaders from Argentina and Surinam accountable for crimes against humanity. But because the abuses took place before the UN Convention on Torture was ratified, Dutch courts ruled that Holland did not have jurisdiction over the crimes.

Karen Meirik is an IWPR contributor in The Hague.