DR Congo massacre may alter international law

Case to be decided on March 7 could represent a breakthrough for justice related to sexual crimes during war.

It was half past five on a Monday morning in February 2003 when the first men arrived. They ran to the centre of the village carrying machetes and spears and rifles. Some invaded the houses and shot residents in their sleep, others cut them up with their machetes; another group set the huts on fire and burnt the families alive.

As time went by, the commanders of the group put some chairs under the mango trees close to the village and began to drink beer. By the end of the afternoon, dead bodies of around 200 people were scattered on the ground; and the commanders were drunk.

This is how the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) describes the attack on Bogoro, a village in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). According to the prosecutor’s team of investigators and lawyers, the attack is only one of many events that make the conflict in Central Africa one of the bloodiest since World War II. For almost ten years the ICC team has been building a case against the alleged perpetrators of this particular attack. Now the final stage has been reached.

On March 7 the judges at the Netherlands-based court will deliver their ruling in the case against Germain Katanga, allegedly a leader of one of the groups that committed the attack on Bogoro.

Ethnic cleansing? 

Katanga has been charged with three counts of crimes against humanity, namely murder, sexual slavery, and rape; as well as seven counts of war crimes, among them the use of child soldiers, attacks on the civilian population, and pillaging. The ICC is the first permanent international court that has jurisdiction over grave human rights violations.

A conviction of sexual violence crimes would be an important milestone for the court

Rianne Letschert, professor in international law

According to the prosecution, the accused Germain Katanga was the commander of the Patriotic Resistance Force in Ituri (FRPI), a militia in Eastern Congo. FRPI fighters were mainly members of the Lendu and Ngiti ethnic groups and wanted to “wipe out” Bogoro village and its predominantly Hema population, the prosecution stated

The FRPI militia allegedly committed the attack on Bogoro jointly with another rebel group led by Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui. Their leaders, Katanga and Ngudjolo, were facing similar charges, and their trial began in November 2009.  In 2012, Ngudjolo was acquitted for lack of evidence. The judges argued that witness testimony had been too contradictory.

“The acquittal highlighted the fundamental weakness of the evidence gathered by the prosecution,” Phil Clark, a political scientist at the University of London who is specialises in the region, told Al Jazeera. Since both cases use the same batch of evidence, a conviction of Germain Katanga is far from guaranteed, Clark adds.

“This trial lost much of its impact and the weakness of the prosecutor’s evidence has undermined the credibility of the ICC,” he says. “Many local people have already lost their faith in the ICC process.” Also politically the trial didn’t have much of an impact on the key actors. The large scale violence in Congo is carried out by various rebel forces, often with the backing of the Congolese, Ugandan or Rwandan governments, Clark explains. “The important role of other regional governments is a key issue which has been skirted for fear of losing the ICC’s political allies in the region.”

Sexual crimes

If not politically, the judgment could be pathbreaking legally though: A convicition for sexual crimes would be considered a major victory for the evolving nature of international law. According to experts, the judgment can shape how the international community in the future will deal with sexual violence crimes in conflicts.

“A conviction of sexual violence crimes would be an important milestone for the court,” Rianne Letschert, a professor in international law and victimology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands says. “This case is terribly important not only for Katanga’s victims but also for national and international cases in the future.”

Hundreds of thousands have died in ongoing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo [AP]

Congo has a high prevalence of sexual violence. “A conviction at the ICC would show that no immunity exists for those crimes and could increase the pressure on national courts to prosecute sexual violence crimes,” Letschert told Al Jazeera. At the international level it could further strengthen the recognition of sexual violence crimes which could be added to charges in other cases before international tribunals.

In Bogoro, women were raped, girls detained to serve as sex slaves or forced into “marriage” with soldiers.

“We found her undressed and naked like an animal,” a witness said when describing a dead woman lying in her hut the day after the massacre. “Her legs were open, one tied with a rope to the pillar, the other to the door.”

The prosecution has argued that Germain Katanga was one of the commanders present when the attack on Bogoro took place. Therefore he could have prevented the violence. Katanga denied that he participated or knew when the attack was going to occur.

Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor at the ICC must not only prove that Katanga knew what his troops were doing, but also that the Bogora massacre was part of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population – the essential element for crimes against humanity.

Germain Katanga’s defense team argued that the target of the attack in February 2003 was a military base in Bogoro, not the civilian population. According to the defence, inhabitants of the village have taken part in the hostilities.

The decision in the Katanga case will be the third judgment in the ICC’s history. Germain Katanga could either follow Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese “war lord” who was convicted of the recruitment of child soldiers; or his co-accused Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui. Ngudjolo was acquitted, but still cannot return to Congo and is allegedly waiting in a hotel room in The Hague.

Follow Benjamin Dürr on Twitter: @benjaminduerr

Source: Al Jazeera

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