26 Mar 2013

Judgement day coming for Congo’s ‘Terminator’

Appearing for the first time at the ICC, renegade Congolese General Bosco Ntaganda was informed of the breathtaking array of charges against him, writes Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller.

Fiddling with a blue Bic ballpen, Bosco “The Terminator” sat in a navy suit at the back of the court in the Hague and listened to the lengthy list of charges he’s facing: seven counts of war crimes, three of crimes against humanity. It all seemed a very long way from the Congo.

It was hard to believe that just 10 days ago, Bosco Ntaganda was fighting for his life as the rebel group that he founded imploded, forcing him to run for his life. Sitting in court, he seemed rather smaller than his terrifying reputation suggested.

Then he spoke. And he seemed smaller still.

Asked by the Bulgarian judge, Ekaterina Trendafilova, to confirm that he had been informed of the charges, the Terminator mumbled a “yes”, then, demurely asking permission to continue to speak, said: “But I plead not guilty.”

A plea was not in today’s script though.

Ms Trendafilova set the warlord straight, indicating that there’d be plenty of time for all that later on. Today was a day for reading the charges, ensuring that he’d been informed of them and to check that he knew his rights. Proceedings would, the judge said, be translated for him into Kinyarwanda, the east African language in which Mr Ntganda is fluent.

The judge set the date for confirmation of the charges he will face for 23 September.

As she prepared for today’s hearing, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court told Channel 4 News of her elation at seeing “the Terminator” – until last week one of Africa’s most wanted war crimes suspects – in the Hague.

“This moment goes to show that no matter how long it takes, an arrest warrant by the ICC means all roads lead to the Hauge,” said Fatou Bensouda.

It is almost exactly a year since the Gambian lawyer – then chief prosecutor-elect – told Channel 4 News that getting the warlord and rebel leader to the Hague to face justice would be her top priority. “This is his destiny,” she said at the time. “This is where he should be. He should be stopped.”

Fatou Bensouda

No-one – least of all Ms Bensouda – can have expected the startling turn of events which led Bosco Ntaganda, who has fought for at least six different different armies over more than two decades, to turn himself in. But he did. This day last week, he walked into the US Embassy in Rwanda and actually asked to be sent to the Hague.

It was the first time that a wanted war crimes suspect had voluntarily surrendered to the ICC. And it was a measure of how desperate he was to save his own skin, for by then Bosco Ntaganda was himself a dead man walking. He had fled into Rwanda the weekend before last after an internecine bloodbath between two rival factions of the M23 rebels he had himself founded last April.

Murder and rape

The man better known as “the Terminator” wore his nom de guerre like a medal.

In eastern Congo, his bloodthirsty militias rampaged and plundered and murdered and raped their way through a region whose population was traumatised by the deadliest war in modern African history. It is a region where everyone knows who you mean when you talk of “le Terminateur”.

Recent victims of the M23’s extreme violence testify to Bosco’s barbarity continuing right up to his unexpected surrender. Channel 4 News documented a war crime ascribed to rebel soldiers under his command in 2008. But the two separate international arrest warrants (warrant one and warrant two) issued by the ICC detail charges dating from 2002 and 2003.

They charge Bosco Ntaganda with “individual criminal responsibility for crimes against humanity of murder, rape/sexual slavery” and ethnic persecution. He is also charged with the war crimes of “murder, intentional attacks against civilians, pillaging and rape/sexual slavery.”

The first warrant against him contained another war crimes charge, “of conscripting [and] enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities.” For Bosco Ntganda, the recuitment and use of child soldiers in battle was a hallmark.

Shudder of fear

The very mention of his alias, “the Terminator”, sent a shudder of fear through men, women and children alike. Hundreds of thousands of people were terrorised by Bosco’s personal brand of brutality. Witnesses and victims of his alleged crimes have, over the years, spoken to Channel 4 News of this reign of terror.

“He would find two or three girls and take us by force to turn us into his ‘wives’,” said one teenage girl. “He was brutal to me. I feared death, so I gave in to him.”

An 11-year-old boy told us: “We were playing, when Bosco Ntaganda’s soldiers came and abducted us and took us to him. They told us ‘Bosco Ntaganda is now your father.’ We were tortured to toughen us up… in preparation for when we were needed on the battlefield.”

In reporting the alleged crimes of Bosco Ntaganda, I have worked closely with the British filmmaker Fiona Lloyd Davies who has written extensively and empathetically on this subject. She has painstakingly documented the chilling testimony of the victims of violence in eastern Congo, sometimes at great personal risk.

In November 2008, a Channel 4 News crew filmed the aftermath of a massacre at a Congolese village called Kiwanja, in which the UN later reported 150 people had been murdered in cold blood. Bosco Ntaganda was the rebel chief of staff in that region and was filmed in Kiwanja that very day, commanding his forces. Their victims were either shot or chopped with machetes.

“He has committed heinous crimes,” a survivor of the Kiwanja massacre told us. “He has killed so many people. There were so many bodies, my neighbours among them,” she said. “Those who were torching houses and killing people were soldiers of Bosco Ntaganda.”

A man whose wife was killed at Kiwanja and narrowly escaped a violent death himself said: “They would tie your arms and legs. Then they would either shoot you, or chop you up with a panga. As you lay there dying, his troops would chant ‘Long live Bosco Ntaganda.'”

Additional evidence

The ICC Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, told Channel 4 News today: “We have presented evidence to the judges on the basis of which they issued [the] arrest warrants. We will present additional evidence, as required by law, to meet the threshold for conviction.”

The ICC judges must decide, now that they have Bosco Ntaganda in custody, whether the evidence they have before them is deemed sufficient for the case to go to trial. According to Jason K Stearns, one of the leading experts on Congo – and author of the book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters – Bosco’s case may be more of what he calls a “slam dunk” than other cases currently being tried.

In his (highly informative) blog Congo Siasa he writes: “Given his direct involvement in military operations, there is strong evidence against him for the Ituri crimes… In addition, the prosecutor will seek to add charges related to his time as chief of staff of the CNDP (2006-2009).”

The massacre in Kiwanja on 6 November 2008 falls into this period, and the reports Channel 4 News broadcast at that time are a matter of public record.

That 150 people died in Kiwanja that day further damaged the reputation of the United Nations in Congo. A contingent of 120 peacekeepers was based in the next-door town of Rutshuru, but they failed to stop the killing, instead they locked themselves inside their base as mayhem ruled in the streets outside. Thousands of petrified civilians camped at their gates pleading to be let in as Bosco’s army slaughtered civilians.

Not known for altruism

A few months later, Bosco Ntaganda switched sides, in a peace deal with the government. As part of the deal, he actually agreed to “respect international humanitarian and human rights law”. Despite the ICC arrest warrant for him and a US $5m price on his head, the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world proved powerless to apprehend him. Bosco rubbed shoulders with UN commanders in hotels and restaurants in the regional capital, Goma.

According to Congolese people we have spoken to, his reign of terror simply continued in a different uniform. He emerged as a kingpin of the minerals-smuggling racket and he quickly became very rich and powerful. Then, last April, he went awol again, and shortly afterwards the M23 first appeared on the scene, with Bosco its leader, backed, UN reports say, by neighbouring Rwanda.

Now Bosco Ntaganda, a man never renowned for his altruism – has done Congo and the world a big favour, by handing himself in. The International Criminal Court – a creation of the United Nations – now has the chance to do the UN’s battered reputation a favour by putting this warlord on trial.

One year ago, another Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga, became the first person to be convicted by the ICC for war crimes. He was sentenced to 14 years in jail. Back in 2002, Bosco Ntaganda was one of Lubanga’s field commanders and Bosco’s first arrest warrant relates to charges dating from this time.

The chief prosecutor of the ICC has declared Bosco Ntaganda’s surrender “a good day for the victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo and for international justice”. Those victims will be watching closely events far away in the Hague. Hasta la vista, Terminator. See you in court.