International court convicts Congo rebel leader known as 'Terminator'
Congolese militia commander Bosco Ntaganda sits in the courtroom of the ICC (International Criminal Court) during his trial at the Hague in the Netherlands, Monday July 8, 2019. (Eva Plevier/Pool via AP)
The International Criminal Court on Monday convicted a notorious rebel commander known as "The Terminator" of 18 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes including murder, rape and sexual slavery for his role in atrocities in a bloody ethnic conflict in a mineral-rich region of Congo in 2002-2003.
Bosco Ntaganda, who maintained his innocence during his trial, faces a maximum life sentence following his convictions at the global court. He showed no emotion as Presiding Judge Robert Fremr passed judgment.
A separate hearing will be scheduled to determine his sentence. Ntaganda has 30 days to appeal.
Ntaganda was first indicted in 2006 and became a symbol of impunity in Africa, even serving as a general in Congo's army before turning himself in in 2013 as his power base crumbled.
Fremr said that Ntaganda was guilty as a direct perpetrator or a co-perpetrator of a string of crimes including murders, rapes of men and women, a massacre in a banana field behind a building called The Paradiso and of enlisting and using child soldiers.
"The bodies of those killed — men women and children and babies — were found in the banana field over the next days," Fremr said. "Some bodies were found naked, some had their hands tied up and some had their heads crushed. Several bodies were disembowelled or otherwise mutilated."
During his trial, Ntaganda testified for weeks in his own defence, saying he wanted to put the record straight about his reputation as a ruthless military leader.
He was the deputy chief of staff and commander of operations for rebel group the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. The force's leader, Thomas Lubanga, was convicted by the ICC in 2012 of using child soldiers. He is serving a 14-year prison sentence.
Maria Elena Vignoli, international justice counsel with Human Rights Watch, welcomed Ntaganda's conviction.
"The long-awaited judgment provides an important measure of justice for Bosco Ntaganda's victims and puts others responsible for grave crimes on notice," she said. "But renewed violence in eastern Congo highlights the need to address the impunity for other abusive leaders."
Congolese activists also praised the conviction.
"We welcome the decision of the ICC. We believe that the victims will be relieved," said Jean-Claude Katende, president of the African Association of Human Rights in Congo. "We want the sentence to be fixed proportionate to his crimes."
A representative of the Lendu community in Congo's Ituri province also hailed the conviction.
"We are very happy with this decision of the ICC," said Francois Dheda. "To this day, we are traumatized by Ntaganda's acts of brutality. The mass graves of the victims are still visible, the whole villages burned at the time are still visible. In addition to this conviction, we are looking for reparations."
Amnesty International also called for reparations.
"We can only hope that today's verdict provides some consolation to those affected by the grotesque crimes perpetrated by Ntaganda and paves the way for his victims and their families to finally obtain a measure of justice and reparations," said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International's Director for East Africa.
Monday's convictions were a victory for ICC prosecutors after high profile defeats recently. In January, judges acquitted former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo and a former government minister of involvement in crimes following disputed 2010 elections. Last year, a former Congolese vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was acquitted on appeal of crimes allegedly committed by his militia in neighbouring Central African Republic.
Set up in 2002, the court has convicted only four people of war crimes and five more for interfering with witnesses.
Fremr said 102 witnesses testified at Ntaganda's trial, including a woman who survived having her throat slit by Ntaganda's forces. Fremr said Ntaganda himself shot and killed an elderly man serving as a Catholic priest.
Vignoli said thousands more victims in Congo still await justice.
"The ICC and Congolese authorities should work together to bring to trial many more of those responsible for grave crimes, including senior officials," she added.