BOSCO Ntaganda, a Congolese warlord known as “the Terminator” who evaded arrest on war crimes charges for seven years, has denied his guilt as he appeared for the first time at the International Criminal Court.
Ntaganda unexpectedly gave himself up to diplomats at the US Embassy in Rwanda last week, walking in off the street and demanding to be handed over the ICC. Within days he was put on a plane to The Hague.
He is accused of murder, rape and other crimes over a 15-year-period of fighting in Rwandan-backed rebellions in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ntaganda’s ruthlessness in battle earned him the nickname “The Terminator.” Prosecutors say he was the chief of operations of the Union of Congolese Patriots and its armed wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which waged a brutal military campaign to establish political and military domination for the Hema tribe over the resource-rich Ituri region of eastern Congo, allegedly killing some 800 people in a few months.
Ntaganda’s indictment says rebels surrounded and shelled villages before going house-to-house to slaughter survivors with guns, machetes, spears and knives. The fighters allegedly raped women and abducted them to turn into sex slaves.
The former leader of the rebels, Thomas Lubanga, last year became the first person convicted in the ICC’s ten-year history. He was found guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers in fighting in Ituri and sentenced to 14 years.
After his first indictment in 2006, Ntaganda became a symbol of impunity in Africa, playing tennis and dining at top restaurants in the eastern Congo city of Goma, apparently without fear of arrest. His appearance almost seven years after the court first issued a warrant for his arrest is a much-needed success for the ICC following the collapse of several cases.
Dressed in an ill-fitting dark blue suit, blue shirt, and stripy tie – attire most likely provided by the court – a stooped and bowed Ntaganda appeared ill at ease in the courtroom yesterday.
He confirmed his name, gave his age as 39, and told the court he was not guilty of the charges, but a judge interrupted and said this was not the occasion for discussing his guilt.
Ekaterina Trendafilova, who was presiding alone over the hearing, said: “I wouldn’t like to interrupt you, because you should feel at ease. But the purpose of this initial hearing is ... to know whether you have been informed about the crimes ... your rights, and we are not discussing now anything related to your guilt or innocence.”
“I was born in Rwanda but I grew up in Congo. I am a Congolese citizen,” Ntaganda told the court, speaking in Kinyarwanda through interpreters. “I was a soldier in the Congo.”
Ntaganda is accused of recruiting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution, sexual slavery and rape during a 2002-2003 conflict in Ituri.
Most recently, he was a commander in the M23 rebel movement, but his whereabouts had been unknown after he had fled to Rwanda with hundreds of his followers, and his decision to turn himself in to the US Embassy in the capital Kigali caught diplomats there by surprise.
Analysts said he may have felt that his life would be safer in an ICC detention cell than in an increasingly hostile Rwanda.
A date of 23 September was set for the next hearing at which judges will decide whether the evidence against Ntaganda is strong enough to warrant a trial – by no means a foregone conclusion. Recently, prosecutors withdrew their case against Kenyan civil servant Francis Muthaura after a witness retracted his testimony.
With many wanted men at large Ntaganda’s arrival is especially welcome to prosecutors and activists.
“Ntaganda’s appearance at the ICC after years as a fugitive offers victims of horrific crimes a real hope of seeing justice,” said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch.
“Ntaganda’s detention shows that no one is above the law.”