The Hague, Netherlands, Aug 26 – International judges will next week listen to final arguments in the case against former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, three years after the opening of his war crimes trial.
The man once known as “The Terminator”, in September 2015 pleaded not guilty to 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.
Prosecutors at the Hague-based tribunal said Ntaganda’s rebel army in 2002 and 2003 conducted a reign of terror in the vast northeast Congolese province of Ituri, where they unleashed horrific abuses on local inhabitants.
Ntaganda played a “key role” in these attacks, using child soldiers and capturing sex slaves, while attacking civilians on ethnic grounds, the ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said during the hearings.
The charismatic warlord, a feared ex-general with a penchant for cowboy hats and fine dining, planned operations for his Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC).
He gave the orders and provided logistics and weapons to his troops, prosecutors said. At least 800 people were killed by the FPLC as they battled rival militias for control of the mineral-rich area.
In particular, prosecutors say Ntaganda lead a November 2002 attack on the gold mining town of Mongbwalu that lasted six days and left 200 villagers dead.
More than 60,000 people have been killed since violence erupted in the volatile Ituri region in 1999, according to rights groups.
Ntaganda, now around 44, was also the founder of the M23 rebel group, which was defeated by UN-backed government troops in November of 2013 in the mineral-rich Kivu region of the DR Congo.
Ntaganda is the first suspect to voluntarily surrender to the ICC. In March 2013, he walked into the US embassy in Rwanda and asked to be sent to The Hague.
Observers said Ntaganda was possibly fearing for his life as a fugitive from a rival faction in the M23 movement.
– ‘Not a criminal’ –
During his trial, the soft-spoken Ntaganda sought to persuade judges that he was “a soldier, not a criminal” and that he did not deserve the moniker of “Terminator”.
“I never attacked civilians, on the other hand I have always protected them,” Ntaganda said when he spoke in 2015 for the first time since his arrest.
Ntaganda wants to present himself as a “human being” his lawyer Stephane Bourgon told AFP, adding his client is likely to make a statement during the closing arguments.
Next week’s hearings will run from Tuesday until Thursday and will be followed with interest after the surprise acquittal of another Congolese rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba.
Initially sentenced to 18 years for war crimes committed by his troops in the Central African Republic, Bemba was acquitted on appeal in June. He has since returned to Kinshasa.
The acquittal was seen as another blow to prosecutor Bensouda’s office, who in the past has been criticised for targeting only African perpetrators for prosecution.
However, Ntaganda’s former FPLC commander Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012 in the second conviction by the court since it was set up 16 years ago.