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Second Congo War Crimes Trial Begins

Accused deny massacre charges amid concern that people in Ituri missed court proceedings.
By Rachel Irwin
The war crimes trial of two former Congolese militia leaders began this week amid concerns that people affected by the case in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, had no way to watch the proceedings themselves.

Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo deny the charges against them at the International Criminal Court, ICC, in The Hague and Katanga’s lawyer said he was not responsible for what he called “excesses”.

“The trial has not been broadcast directly in Ituri,” one of Ngudjolo’s lawyers, Jean-Pierre Kilenda, told judges on November 25, calling on them to ensure that the situation was remedied.

“I have stressed that the proceedings not be limited to this courtroom,” responded presiding Judge Bruno Cotte, who had previously mentioned the importance of holding a public trial that was accessible to people in the eastern Ituri region, which is the subject of the trial.

In a highly unusual move, the judge asked for an official dealing with public information to appear in court to explain what had happened and clear up any “misunderstandings”.

The trial of Katanga and Ngudjolo is the second one to begin at the ICC.

Katanga, the former leader of the Patriotic Resistance Force, FRPI, and Ngudjolo, the ex-head of the National Integrationist Front, FNI, are accused of planning the February 24, 2003 attack on the Ituri village of Bogoro, which killed about 200 people and burned much of the village to the ground.

The two defendants are charged with ten counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, pillaging and the use of child soldiers.

Both pleaded not guilty to each charge when the trial began on November 24.

While it is rare for outreach issues to filter into the courtroom, concerns over the effectiveness of the court’s efforts to inform the population in the DRC are not new.

When the ICC’s first trial - that of another former Congolese militia leader, Thomas Lubanga ¬- began last January, the court organised a public screening of the opening day in the centre of Bunia, the capital of the Ituri region.

The situation, however, quickly deteriorated when more than 400 largely ethnic Hema residents and supporters of Lubanga tried to pack into a space intended for only 100. Those left outside became angry, hurling insults. The mood inside the room was not much better as the crowd reproached the court and the prosecutor.

The screening was eventually suspended.

To address what happened this week, Sonia Robla, head of public information at the ICC, appeared in the witness box on November 26.

“The outreach unit is highly committed to ensuring that the proceedings are properly understood by the affected communities,” she told judges.

Robla said that her team had planned to arrange for the opening day of the Katanga trial to be broadcast on Congolese state television. At the last minute, however, they were informed that part of the satellite was busy and the broadcast would not be possible.

As a result, her team resorted to “Plan B”, which involved calling Ituri community leaders, giving radio interviews and producing audiovisual summaries of the proceedings. Robla said that the entirety of the opening statements would be broadcast on state television on November 27.

“For the rest of the trial, we have a very good plan,” she said.

Robla’s appearance followed that of the first witness - the head of investigations for the office of the prosecutor, OTP.

The judges said they asked the witness to testify in order to “reveal the conditions under which the investigation took place” and to help the court “understand the way the work was carried out”.

The head of investigations testified anonymously. The witness’s face was distorted.

The witness told the judges that investigators face threats while working in the field and often have difficulty protecting themselves and the people who agree to be interviewed as potential witnesses.

“The OTP doesn’t conduct secret missions,” said the witness. “It’s very likely that we [can be] identified and this can be detrimental.”

The judges questioned the witness extensively about the investigation, and asked how it was determined that 200 people were killed in the Bogoro massacre.

The witness said the number was based on eyewitness information since investigators “were not present during the attack”.

“Did [investigators] try to establish the identity of the victims?” asked Judge Cotte.

The witness said they had not, “By the time we had access to the crime scene, it was a long time since the crime.”

This issue came up again when Katanga’s defence lawyer, David Hooper, asked the witness why a full exhumation of the bodies was not conducted.

“[A partial] exhumation was carried out and done for corroborative purposes,” the witness responded. “There was no need for a full exhumation.”

Later in the week, an anonymous witness from the DRC appeared in court.

When the attack began, the witness had at first tried to flee to the militia training camp in the village, which at that time was occupied by the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC, an ethnically Hema militia, the court was told.

However, the camp was already in the hands of “enemy” militia who were shooting in his direction, the witness said. The court was told the witness immediately fled into the bush, hiding with some friends all of that day and into the following day as the shooting continued.

“We were so hungry … and so thirsty,” the witness told prosecutor Eric Macdonald. “[I thought] ‘We’re not going to survive in such a state.’”

According to prosecutors, the witness was one of the lucky few to survive.

In his opening statement on November 24, prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said that Katanga and Ngudjolo not only sought to drive out the rival UPC militia from Bogoro, but they also intended to “wipe out” the village population completely.

“Some [people] were shot in their sleep, some were cut up with machetes, and others were burned alive after their houses were set on fire,” Moreno-Ocampo told judges.

Many women, the witness said, were also brutally raped. The court would hear the testimony of two child soldiers who did not have the courage to kill a 50-year-old woman they came across, Moreno-Ocampo said.

He added that, later, the two children “found her undressed and naked … her legs open, with one tied to a pillar in the house and the other to the door”.

Katanga, continued the prosecutor, even “boasted” about the massacre, saying at the time that “nothing was spared … chickens, goats, nothing. Everything was wiped out”.

For the defence, Hooper, Katanga’s lawyer, stressed that it was the prosecution that was bringing the charges and it was their responsibility to prove them.

He said that Katanga, who was only 24 at the time of the attack, was the youngest person ever to be charged in an international tribunal.

“He’s the same age as my son,” said Hooper, adding that Katanga seemed “affable, intelligent and pleasant”.

Hooper said that there undoubtedly was an attack on Bogoro, but the “excesses” were not committed by Katanga.

“Bogoro was attacked, but who planned it? Who benefited? Who provided arms? Who provided military knowledge?” Hooper asked.

Kilenda, Ngudjolo’s lawyer, agreed that an attack had taken place and “denying those events is an insult to morality and reason”.

He said that Katanga and Ngudjolo “never plotted to wipe Bogoro off the map”.

“Why would they?” he asked.

The two legal representatives of the nearly 350 victims participating in the proceedings also gave statements to the court.

“This is a great moment of hope for the victims who have been waiting for six years for justice to be served,” said Jean-Louis Gillissen, who represents ten child soldiers.

The lawyer for the remaining victims, Fidel Nsita Luvengika, said the victims would prefer to be in the courtroom themselves.

“[They] regret that the proceedings have to be held more than 8,000 kilometres [from the DRC] but [they] do trust in justice, particularly in this justice,” he said. “[We] hope the proceedings will help them understand what really happened and have their dignity restored.”

The trial will sit daily until December 11 and recommence on January 26.

Rachel Irwin in an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Charles Ntiricya is a Congolese journalist and an IWPR trainee.

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