THE HAGUE (CN) — Former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda was convicted Monday of all 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, by the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
Ntaganda remained stoic as a judge read out the verdict: guilty on all 13 counts of war crimes and five crimes against humanity. All of the charges stem from warfare in Ituri Province, in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2002 and 2003.
Among the war crimes of which he was convicted, according to an ICC fact sheet, are murder and attempted murder; attacking civilians; rape; sexual slavery of civilians; pillaging; displacement of civilians; rape, sexual slavery, enlistment and conscription of child soldiers under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities; the crimes against humanity included murder and attempted murder; rape; sexual slavery; persecution; and forcible transfer of population.
Eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had long been volatile and the situation was exacerbated by the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Rwanda invaded the DRC (then called Zaire) in 1996 to pursue rebel groups which had crossed the border. That set off the First Congo War, which lasted until 1997. Peace was short-lived, as the Second Congo War broke out in 1998. By 2008, 5.4 million people had died in the conflict.
The ICC, which was created by the Rome Statute in 2002, issued its first arrest warrant for Ntaganda in 2006, which was sealed, as the Court was afraid he would go into hiding if he knew he was wanted. It was unsealed in 2008, but, Ntaganda remained in the Congolese army, making the rank of general.
A second warrant was issued in 2012, with additional charges, including rape. The ICC has long struggled to prosecute sexual and gender-based crimes, which are often difficult to prove. However, the current ICC prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has prioritized cases of this nature.
Nicknamed The Terminator, Ntaganda, about 41, was known for wearing cowboy hats during the war. He was born in Rwanda in 1973 but moved to the DRC after attacks on fellow ethnic Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide.
He returned to Rwanda with the Rwandan Patriotic Army in the early 1990s before joining the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, a militia group which operated in Ituri Province of the DRC. He went on to become the military chief of staff of the National Congress for the Defense of the People, another militia group operating in the North Kivu, a region of the DRC south of Ituri. It was during his time with these groups that the charges arose.
Ntaganda defected from the army in 2012 to form the March 23 Movement. Three hundred soldiers followed him. That group is also alleged to have committed war crimes, including forced conscription of child soldiers.
Ntaganda turned himself into the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda in 2012 and asked to be transferred to the ICC. He was the first suspect to ever do so at the ICC. Though he has not indicated why he chose to surrender, Al Jazeera reported in 2013 that there was violent infighting in the March 23 Movement.
His trial began in 2015 and he maintained his innocence throughout, telling the court during his closing statement: “I am a revolutionary, not a criminal.” His legal defense claimed that he saved lives rather than taking them.
“Bosco Ntaganda’s involvement in these events resulted in a lesser number of victims rather than more; he should be acquitted on all counts,” said his lead attorney, Stephane Bourgon of Canadian firm Endo & Associés.
After three years and 248 hearings with 102 witnesses, the case was closed in 2018. ICC Judge Robert Fremr read today’s ruling. “In addition to his direct orders to target and kill civilians, Mr. Ntaganda endorsed criminal conduct of his soldiers by way of his own conduct,” Fremr said.
Though Ntaganda was found guilty on all 18 counts, he was not found guilty in every incident.
“Even though the prosecution initially alleged crimes to have been committed in a number of villages, and the pre-trial chambers confirmed charges in this regard, the prosecution did not lead any evidence with regards to some villages, and did not maintain the associated allegations in its closing brief,” the court found.
Ntaganda is not the only person charged with war crimes in the conflict. Thomas Lubanga, the leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, another militia group which Ntaganda also briefly led, was sentenced in 2012 to 14 years in prison for use of child soldiers.
A third war criminal, Germain Katanga, former chief of staff of the Patriotic Force of Resistance, another militia group, was sentenced to 12 years in jail for attacks on civilians. A fourth militia leader, Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, was acquitted in 2012.
Ntaganda is the fourth person to be convicted by the International Criminal Court since its inception in 2012. He will remain in custody while awaiting sentencing and has 30 days to appeal.