(Brussels) – The International Criminal Court’s arrest of a third war crimes suspect in the Democratic Republic of Congo should encourage the court to pursue senior civilian and military officials in the Great Lakes region linked to international crimes committed there, Human Rights Watch said today.
Congolese authorities yesterday arrested Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, former chief of staff of the Front for National Integration (FNI), an ethnic Lendu-based militia group that committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Ituri district of northeastern Congo. Ngudjolo was placed in ICC custody on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He will arrive in The Hague later today. At the time of his arrest, Ngudjolo was in military training in Kinshasa following his appointment as a colonel in the Congolese national army in October 2006.
"Ngudjolo's arrest shows that justice will reach those who seem untouchable because of their official position," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "The arrest brings hope to the many victims of war crimes in Ituri that other political and military officials will be held to account."
Unlike the previous two ICC suspects who were already in Congolese detention at the time of arrest, Ngudjolo was not in custody when the ICC served its warrant. Human Rights Watch said that effective cooperation among the Congolese government, the ICC and the Belgian authorities made Ngudjolo's arrest possible, and expressed hope that such cooperation would be repeated in the future.
The arrest of Ngudjolo follows the October 2007 arrest and surrender to The Hague of Germain Katanga, the former chief of staff of the Patriotic Force of Resistance in Ituri (FRPI), an ally of the FNI. Like Katanga, Ngudjolo is charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes, which he allegedly committed in the town of Bogoro in 2003. An ICC hearing to confirm the charges against Katanga will begin later this year. The ICC will also start its first-ever trial against Thomas Lubanga, former warlord and leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, a militia force opposed to the FNI and the FRPI sometime in 2008.
Research by Human Rights Watch indicates that Ngudjolo and Katanga's militia group regularly received financial and military support from high-ranking officials in Kinshasa in Congo and in Uganda and that Katanga had personally been involved in meetings where such support was discussed. This support is also described in a public letter by FNI president Floribert Njabu, in February 2007, in which he implicated senior government officials.
"The three rebel leaders held by the ICC did not act alone in terrorizing civilians in Ituri," said Singh. "The ICC prosecutor should investigate their links to officials in the Congo, Rwanda and Uganda who might also be responsible for atrocities."
Two other former warlords-turned-colonels participated in the military training with Ngudjolo in Kinshasa: Cobra Matata, a senior commander during the massacre at Nyakunde in September 2002, the single biggest massacre in eastern Congo during the recent war, and Peter Karim, allegedly responsible for numerous atrocities against Congolese civilians and the hostage-taking of eight UN peacekeepers, one of whom was killed, in April 2006. Both men were appointed as colonels in the Congolese army alongside Ngudjolo. To date, neither individual has been charged with any crimes.
"Ngudjolo's arrest represents an important break in the vicious cycle of impunity in the Congo," said Singh. "Instead of rewarding abusive warlords like Cobra Matata and Peter Karim with plum military posts, the Congolese authorities should follow the ICC's lead and try them for war crimes 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.
Mathieu Ngudjolo was a senior military leader in the ethnic Lendu armed group known as the Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes (Front for National Integration, FNI), at one point in 2003 holding the most senior position as chief of staff. In October 2003, Ngudjolo was arrested with the assistance of UN peacekeepers in Bunia for the killing of a Hema businessman linked to a rival armed group. A court in Bunia later acquitted him, but remained incarcerated while the local prosecutor appealed the decision. The government later accused Ngudjolo of war crimes for a massacre committed by FNI troops in the town of Tchomia in May 2003 and transferred him from Bunia to Makala prison in Kinshasa from where he escaped before a judgment could be delivered.
In 2005, after the downfall of some of the FNI's top political and military leaders, Ngudjolo helped to launch a new armed group consisting of the remnants of previous militia groups which became known as the Mouvement Révolutionnaire Congolais (Congolese Revolutionary Movement or MRC). Ngudjolo became the MRC's president.
In mid 2006, Ngudjolo signed an agreement with the Congolese government for the disarmament and integration of his forces into the national army. On October 2, 2006, a ministerial decree promoted him to the official rank of colonel in the Congolese army and he was put in charge of investigations for the army's operations in Ituri. No investigation was carried out to verify his suitability for the role. On November 2, 2007, Ngudjolo left Bunia to pursue military training in Kinshasa.
The FNI and its allied organization, the FRPI, received military and financial support from Uganda, and, from late 2002, from the DRC central government in Kinshasa as it 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, then led by Mbusa Nyamwisi, the current foreign minister. The MRC also received support from Uganda.
Over the past six years, Human Rights Watch has gathered hundreds of accounts documenting widespread human rights abuses by all armed groups in Ituri, including the FNI, the FRPI and the MRC. According to eyewitnesses, Ngudjolo participated in and led FNI combatants at several massacres, including in Bogoro, Tchomia, Mandro, and in Bunia, all in 2003.