JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – The International Criminal Court on Friday handed down the second conviction in its 12-year history, finding former Congolese warlord Germain Katanga guilty on four counts of war crimes and one count of crimes against humanity.
Katanga, a leader of the Patriotic Resistance Force in Ituri, one of the myriad armed militias in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, was found guilty of being an accomplice to murders and pillage during a 2003 attack on the village of Bogoro.
He was acquitted of other charges, including rape and recruiting child soldiers. The court, based in the Hague, found that although child soldiers were present on the day of the attack, it was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that he was responsible.
The court's only other conviction came in 2012, when another former Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga, was sentenced to 14 years for atrocities and war crimes such as recruiting child soldiers.
Human Rights Watch welcomed Friday's verdict, saying it provided a measure of justice for victims of atrocities in Congo. But it called on court investigators to pursue other cases in eastern Congo, which has seen countless attacks, brutal killings and rapes over many years of war.
“Katanga’s conviction for the Bogoro massacre will hopefully bring a sense of justice to victims there, and send a clear warning to rights abusers throughout Congo,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, of the rights organization.
The court has been under intense pressure from hostile African leaders in the past year over its cases against two Kenyan leaders, President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President William Ruto, for ethnic killings during the country’s 2007 election.
The case against Kenyatta is reported to be close to collapse after the withdrawal of key witnesses. That would be a major blow to the court’s credibility, although prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has cited witness intimidation and a lack of cooperation from Kenyan authorities.
Kenyatta and Ruto promised to cooperate with the court before their election last year but have since campaigned strongly for the cases to be dropped.
While human rights groups strongly support the court, saying it is a last resort for victims when leaders or governments refuse to act, African leaders have increasingly accused the court of being biased against Africa. Among the strongest opponents to the court are Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a former supporter of the court; Rwandan President Paul Kagame; and the Kenyan government.
Katanga was found to have provided arms and ammunition to rebels who carried out the 2003 attack on Bogoro, where about 200 people, mostly civilians, were slain. The assailants surrounded the village and killed people with machetes and guns. Many women were raped or abducted as sex slaves, according to reports of the attack.
The Congolese government handed Katanga over to the international court in 2007.
Katanga’s co-defendant, rebel leader Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, was acquitted in December 2012.
In a dissenting opinion Friday, Judge Christine van den Wyngaert called for Katanga’s acquittal, saying his right to a speedy trial had been violated. But presiding Judge Bruno Cotte said Katanga played a key role in the attack by providing the arms and ammunition. Katanga is to be sentenced at a later date.
The dissenting opinion is likely to fuel the controversy in Africa over the role of the court.
Van den Wyngaert also said it was unfair that Katanga was convicted of a modified charge: Initially the prosecution said he was at the center of the attack, but it later accused him of being an accessory.
The international court can act on its own when a government refuses to investigate and charge individuals over atrocities, but half of the cases before it have been referred by African governments.
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