(New York) - The International Criminal Court’s successful arrest warrant against a major war crimes suspect in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) should be followed up by the court extending its investigation to include senior military and political figures in the Great Lakes region who backed local warlords, Human Rights Watch said today.
Earlier today, the International Criminal Court (ICC) unsealed its arrest warrant against General Germain Katanga, the former chief of staff of the Patriotic Force of Resistance in Ituri (FRPI), the military wing of the Front for National Integration (FNI) militia. The Lendu-based group is considered responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Ituri district of north-eastern Congo. Katanga is charged with 3 counts of crimes against humanity and 6 counts of war crimes for his involvement in killings, pillaging, using child soldiers, and sexual enslavement during an attack on the town of Bogoro. Congolese authorities surrendered General Katanga yesterday, and he has been transferred to the ICC.
"We welcome the charges against Germain Katanga, a senior military commander of an ethnic militia in Ituri," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel with Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "The FRPI, together with the FNI, committed horrible crimes against Hema civilians and others. The victims of these crimes deserve to see justice for their suffering."
Katanga's arrest comes more than 18 months after the arrest and transfer to The Hague of the ICC's first suspect, Thomas Lubanga, former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, for enlisting, recruiting and using child soldiers in the Ituri conflict. Lubanga's trial on those charges is slated to begin early next year in what will be the first trial in the ICC's history.
In a recent interview, Katanga told a Human Rights Watch researcher that his militia group regularly received financial and military support from high-ranking officials in Kinshasa and Uganda and that he had personally been involved in meetings where such support was discussed. His allegations are consistent with other information collected by Human Rights Watch and by those described in a public letter by the president of the militia group, Floribert Njabu, in February 2007, where he implicated senior government officials.
"The prosecutor should also pursue the political masters in Kinshasa, Kampala and Kigali who armed and supported the militia groups operating in Ituri," said Singh. "The ICC must not stop at the local warlords if it is going to tackle the widespread impunity in the Democratic Republic of Congo."
Katanga, Njabu and others have been in detention in the DRC since March 2005. They were charged with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity under Congolese law, but have not been yet brought to trial. Their continued detention violates Congolese law.
"The Congolese authorities must take swift action to bring those accused of international crimes to justice," said Singh. "This includes full cooperation with the ICC, but it also means prosecuting suspects now in Congolese custody in fair and effective trials."
In April 2004, the transitional Congolese government referred crimes committed in the country to the ICC. On June 23, 2004, the prosecutor announced the beginning of the court's investigation in the DRC.
Germain Katanga was a senior military leader in the FRPI and the FNI, two closely linked armed groups established in late 2002 that promote the interests of the ethnic Lendu, one of the main tribes in Ituri. The FNI consisted predominantly of Lendu from the north of Ituri, while the FRPI was largely made up of the Ngiti ethnic group, frequently referred to as the Lendu from the south. Katanga is a Ngiti.
Under the leadership of Floribert Njabu, the FNI temporarily integrated with the FRPI to combat the Union of Congolese Patriots, an ethnic Hema group whom the Lendu considered to be their enemies. The FNI and FRPI branches split into separate armed groups in 2004 after leadership wrangles.
Both the FNI and the FRPI received military and financial support from Uganda and, from late 2002, from Kinshasa as the central government attempted to forge new allies in eastern Congo. While Ugandan forces were in Congo in 2003, they carried out joint military operations with the FNI and the FRPI. In 2002 and 2003, the FNI and FRPI also benefited from military training and support from a national rebel group, the RCD-ML, led by the current foreign minister, Mbusa Nyamwisi.
Over the past six years, Human Rights Watch has gathered hundreds of testimonies documenting widespread human rights abuses by all armed groups in Ituri, including the FNI and the FRPI. According to witnesses, Katanga participated in and led FRPI combatants at several massacres, including those in Bunia, Komanda and Bogoro in 2002 and 2003. He ordered, tolerated or personally committed ethnic massacres, murder, torture, rape, mutilation and the recruitment of child soldiers.
In December 2004, President Joseph Kabila signed a decree naming numerous armed group leaders from Ituri as generals in the Congolese army, including Katanga. No checks were carried out as to his suitability for the role. After his arrest in March 2005 by Congolese authorities, the FRPI continued under the leadership of Cobra Matata, a close collaborator of Katanga. The group continued to carry out human rights abuses, including the illegal arrest and torture of local authorities, some of whom were later killed. Since 2006, the FRPI have agreed to disarm and to integrate their combatants into the national army, and Cobra Matata was officially named a colonel. Again, no checks were carried out as to his suitability for the role.