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Congo Warlord's ICC Acquittal Raises Questions

Presiding Judge Bruno Cotte from France (L) and Judge Christine Van Den Wyngaert from Belgium (R) stand during the verdict of the trial of Congolese warlord Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, December 18, 2012.
The International Criminal Court has acquitted former Congolese militia leader Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui of war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with a 2003 village massacre. Human rights groups are calling the verdict a "hard blow" to the victims in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, where violence continues to this day.

The three ICC judges said prosecutors failed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Ngudjolo ordered the vicious 2003 massacre of 200 civilians in Bogoro village of eastern Congo's Ituri province. They cited insufficient evidence.

The judges delivered their unanimous verdict Tuesday at The Hague.

Related - ICC Acquits Congolese Militia Leader of War Crimes

The Congolese army colonel and former militia leader faced three counts of crimes against humanity and seven counts of war crimes that included using child soldiers to murder, rape and force women and girls into sexual slavery as part of the day-long massacre.

The judges emphasized in a statement that their verdict does not mean that Ngudjolo is innocent of any atrocities, nor does it call into question the serious crimes committed in Bogoro that day or the suffering of that community.

This was the ICC's second verdict, and first acquittal, in its now 10-year existence. Experts say it is a signal that the ICC may need to rethink how it gathers evidence on the ground and how it builds cases.

Human Rights Watch Senior DRC Researcher, Anneke Van Woudenberg, said there were "clear weaknesses" in this case.

"Remember that in a place like Ituri, there were multiple massacres that occurred over a number of years. What the judges said today was that they could not beyond reasonable doubt be sure that for this particular massacre, Mathieu Ngudjolo had been the leader of the group at the time. But they did say, they were clear, that Mathieu Ngudjolo had been a key leader of the militia later on and that he did hold command responsibility in the months that followed," said Van Woudenberg. "So it should give some pause for thought to the prosecution that building cases which are so limited on the base of only one massacre without more broadly looking at what happened in the context of Ituri is dangerous and doesn't give us good justice."

Van Woudenberg says the ICC needs to aim even higher up the command structure.

"Which of course means that the finger will be pointing at more senior level individuals in Kinshasa, in Uganda, in Rwanda, all of whom provided weapons and ammunition to these local militia groups," she said. "They are the ones really who should be held to account for some of the horrific atrocities that people in Ituri suffered."

Related - ICC Press Release

The Bogoro attack took place on February 24, 2003, toward the end of the second Congo war.

In her closing arguments in May, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda described how more than 200 villagers were "systematically targeted and brutally killed." She said they were hacked to death with machetes, burnt alive in their homes, and raped.

Bensouda has indicated she will appeal Tuesday's acquittal. Ngudjolo remains in custody pending appeal proceedings.

He was tried with another militia commander, Germain Katanga, in relation to the same massacre. Their cases were separated in November. Katanga's verdict is expected next year.