Congolese warlord Germain Katanga was convicted on Friday of being an accessory to war crimes including murder and pillage – only the second conviction in the 12-year history of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The judgment, albeit by a split verdict after a six-year trial, brings some relief to prosecutors who have faced growing criticism, notably for at least five cases that collapsed either pre-trial or pre-verdict because of a lack of evidence.
Two of the three judges found that Katanga had made a significant contribution to a February 2003 attack on the village of Bogoro, in a diamond-rich region of northeast Congo, by procuring guns to speed the massacre by ethnic Lendu and Ngiti fighters of some 200 ethnic Hema civilians.
“The timing of the attack and the methods used – encircling the village while its inhabitants were still asleep, the use of machetes to attack them, and shooting indiscriminately – led the chamber to find that combatants intended to target the civilian population,” said presiding judge Bruno Cotte.
Attackers fired indiscriminately as villagers sought shelter in the bush, he added. “Absent that supply of weapons … commanders would not have been able to carry out the attack with such efficiency.”
Katanga was, however, acquitted of charges of rape and using child soldiers, and can appeal against his conviction. He could be jailed for up to 30 years when he is sentenced in several months’ time.
Apart from accusations of working too slowly, the ICC has also faced criticism for so far only bringing charges against Africans, while atrocities in conflicts in the politically-charged Middle East and elsewhere go unpunished.
Although more than 100 nations have recognized the court’s jurisdiction, Syria is among the exceptions, meaning that the civil war there remains beyond the ICC’s reach.
The court, which has a budget of some 100 million euros, is now preparing to try Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, accused of orchestrating clashes in which 1,200 died after elections in 2007.
Kenyatta denies the charges but will cooperate, even as his government lobbies hard to have his trial dropped or postponed.
Governments and activists regularly call for the court to involve itself in new situations where large-scale human rights abuses are alleged, most recently the unrest in Ukraine, although many have questioned whether prosecutors are equipped to build solid enough cases.
In a dissenting opinion, judge Christine van den Wyngaert said Katanga’s trial had lasted too long and that he should have been acquitted last year along with his co-accused Mathieu Ngudjolo – largely because judges doubted the testimony of key prosecution witnesses.
At the time, the judges criticized prosecutors for such lapses as failing to visit the site of the attack and not checking what witnesses would have been able to see from the vantage points that they claimed to have had.
Van den Wyngaert, a prominent law professor, also said it was unfair to convict Katanga as an accessory when he had originally been charged with being central to the crime’s commission.
Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, a legal expert at Human Rights Watch, agreed that the decision to allow the change four years into the trial was problematic. “The ICC should draw lessons from this and other cases when it comes to charging and modifying charges against suspects,” she said.
Fatou Bensouda, appointed chief prosecutor two years ago, has boosted the court’s investigative teams and sought funds for forensic experts and other specialist investigators.