Rebel Leaders Plead Not Guilty In Congo Massacre Trial

Lisa Bryant

Two Congolese rebel leaders pleaded not guilty at the start of a trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo are charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court accuse Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo of leading child soldiers and older fighters in a bloody attack on a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri Province in 2003. Many victims were hacked to death with machetes in an assault that left about 200 people dead. Women were allegedly raped and sexually enslaved.

Those charges were read out in French at the trial's opening in The Hague.

"...24 February 2003 Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, jointly committed through other persons war crimes within the meaning of Article 82B and Article 253A, namely the sexual enslavement of civilian female residents or civilian women."

The defendents responded:

"I continue to plead not guilty," said Katanga.

"Mr. Judge, I plead not guilty," said Ngudjolo.

Both pleaded not guilty

The trial is only the second held at the ICC to date. The first began earlier this year targeting another alleged Congolese warlord - Thomas Lubanga - who is charged with recruiting child soldiers.

This case is more complicated, as it involves two defendants. Lawyers from nearly 350 victims are also taking part in the trial. Human Rights Watch lawyer Param-Preet Singh, who has been following the case, says it marks an important accomplishment for the new court - and for Congo.

"Just generally, you look at Congo where impunity has reigned supreme for so long and finally you have a measure of justice for victims," said Param-Preet Singh. "So I think that's the primary reason why this case is so important. For the 350 who are participating in the proceedings but also for victims across Ituri and across Congo who can see that justice is being done."

Singh praises the Congolese government for cooperating with the ICC. Still, she says, more important figures accused of war crimes must be brought to justice.

"Because these warlords - like Thomas Lubanga, like Mathew Ngudjolo, like Germain Katanga - they're important people to hold to account but they didn't act alone," he said. "There were people higher up, more powerful than them, who supported and armed them and helped strategize in carrying out the crimes they are accused of."

In particular, Singh cites another alleged Congolese warlord, Bosco Ntaganda, who remains at large.

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