The Imperfect Trial of Congo’s ‘Terminator’

As Bosco Ntaganda faces charges of war crimes at the Hague, those watching from Congo debate what comes next for their country.


WASHINGTON and GOMA, Congo — When Congolese rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda’s war crimes trial opened in The Hague last month, most of his victims were nearly 4,000 miles away in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unable to watch the proceedings in person, some of them tuned in from a gas station in the provincial capital of Goma.

Nicknamed “the Terminator” for his alleged brutality, Ntaganda faces 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, sexual enslavement, and destruction of enemy property. He is thought to have been involved in multiple rebel movements in Rwanda and Congo going back as far as 1990, when he was still a teenager. More than 5 million people have died in eastern Congo since 1996, when a Rwandan invasion sparked a regional conflagration that eventually drew in nine countries and dozens of rebel groups. It has been described as “Africa’s World War.”

One of the most brutal of these rebel groups was the M23. In 2012, Ntaganda helped the M23 as it seized control of Goma, only to become embroiled in a leadership dispute that would eventually split the movement in two. The Terminator’s rein of terror came to an end in 2013, when he abruptly turned himself in to the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, apparently fearing for his life. On Sept. 15, the first witness took the stand to testify against him at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Unsurprisingly, the proceedings have attracted considerable attention in Congo. During the trial’s early days, people in the country’s east huddled around TVs and radios, glued to the opening statements. In Goma, every local radio station broadcast the first two days of the trial live. A major regional cell-phone provider, Tigo, enabled streaming through its free Facebook app so that people could watch on their devices, at home, in shops, and in public gathering places.

At the OKIS gas station in Goma, employees set up a large TV and screened the trial for anyone who wanted to watch. More than 200 people streamed in, some arriving three to a motorbike, others on foot and dragging toddlers by the hand. The station’s proprietor had a personal stake in the proceedings: He is related to an army colonel who was killed in 2012, the proprietor says, because the colonel refused to join Ntaganda’s mutiny.

It’s hard to say what has drawn Congolese to the trial in such numbers. Some were eager to hear how foreign lawyers would describe the chain of command that oversaw crimes in their communities. Others simply came to see Ntaganda in the dock, his military uniform swapped for a tailored suit. Many wanted to know what he would say when he faced his accusers. Shielding their eyes from the sun’s glare to make out the black-robed figures on the screen, they were participating in a milestone for international justice, just by showing up.

But so far Ntaganda’s trial has been far from perfect — speedy or accessible — especially from the perspective of the victims. Despite a recommendation, penned by judges in one of the ICC’s trial chambers, that the trial be held in Congo’s Ituri region, where the alleged crimes took place, the ICC president decided to keep it in The Hague. Legitimate security concerns factored into the decision, but it nonetheless erected massive physical as well as language barriers between the victims and the trial. Some screenings organized by advocacy groups and ICC field teams in Congo offered translations, but in informal settings like the gas station, viewers had to decipher the proceedings — conducted in a combination of English, French, and Kinyarwanda — on their own.

The charges against Ntaganda are also fairly narrow. Although he is thought to be responsible for war crimes spanning almost a decade, the trial will be limited to crimes committed in 2002 and 2003. “The ICC has decided to wipe the slate clean with Ntaganda’s crimes in the Kivus,” one viewer at the gas station was overheard complaining.

“Still,” the viewer added, “I thank God that he’s at least being held accountable for his crimes in Ituri.”

Another major shortcoming of the case against Ntaganda is the absence of any talk of minerals or other natural resource riches. According to a 2014 briefing on the case by Human Rights Watch, the former rebel leader is believed to have amassed a considerable fortune over the years, “notably through seizing control of fertile land and cattle, and looting and trafficking minerals.” The court has accepted Ntaganda’s claim of indigence and has provided for his defense.

Evidence of pillaged minerals could surface in witness testimony in the coming months of the trial. But theft of Congo’s natural resources deserves more than just a passing mention. While the court can penalize convicts with imprisonment, it can also seize assets in cases where convicts got rich by committing atrocities.

Ignoring the opportunity to retrieve ill-gotten gains was a devastating loss for victims of violence in Sierra Leone in the case of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was sentenced to 50 years in prison for war crimes in 2012. Taylor, who like Ntaganda claimed indigence during his trial at the ICC, was never prosecuted for spearheading the plunder of so-called “blood diamonds” in neighboring Sierra Leone. As a result, the millions — perhaps billions — of dollars in profits he may have hidden away were never sought, seized, or returned.

Human rights groups and U.N. panels have documented extensive exploitation of minerals by armed groups connected to Ntaganda. That theft is often connected to brutal violence. “There is a formula the armed groups use for gaining mineral wealth,” the archbishop of Bukavu, François-Xavier Rusengo, who has witnessed violence in connection with mining in his native South Kivu, eastern Congo, for the past two decades, told us when we visited his cathedral in eastern Congo last month. “That is to attack civilians. When a mother is attacked, the children can’t survive. When a woman is raped, the man is forced to flee. The village is abandoned, and the area is free for minerals exploitation.”

In cases where the accused amassed wealth by committing atrocities, prosecution alone is inadequate. When their profits are not traced and seized, war criminals and their families continue to benefit from ill-gotten gains. Others still at large will never feel financial pressure to stop committing atrocities.

Prosecuting war crimes requires tremendous bandwidth from investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and witness units who handle testimony and outreach, and the ICC is already overextended. But financial investigations are an important part of the court’s mandate. Congolese victims of war have never seen a viable reparations program. The assets are out there, and communities that have suffered deserve repayment. The ICC can and should establish a financial crimes unit to trace assets in all cases and return them to victims in the form of reparations. Ntaganda’s case offers a good opportunity to start.


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