(London) - The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo should immediately arrest Bosco Ntaganda, a Congolese army general sought on an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC), Human Rights Watch said today. Since January 2010, Ntaganda has been implicated in the assassination of at least eight people, arbitrary arrests of another seven, and the abduction and disappearance of at least one more. Some of these incidents occurred in eastern Congo, others in neighboring Rwanda.
Ntaganda, who lives and moves about openly in Goma, in eastern Congo, has also directly or indirectly threatened more than two dozen people whom he perceives as opposing him. Despite well documented evidence of his abuses, the Congolese government has not acted to arrest Ntaganda, whom it regards as essential to the "peace process" in eastern Congo.
"Ntaganda should be arrested and made to answer for his crimes, rather than being allowed to walk freely in Goma," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. "He is a threat to the people of eastern Congo and is making a mockery of the Congolese government's policy of zero tolerance for human rights abuses."
The majority of those targeted by Ntaganda are family members or former supporters of the rebel leader Laurent Nkunda, whom Ntaganda ousted from the leadership of the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) rebel group in January 2009 with the help of military authorities from nearby Rwanda. After taking over the leadership of the CNDP, Ntaganda announced that he was ending the rebellion. He said he would integrate the rebel troops into the Congolese national army to carry out joint operations with Rwandan armed forces against the predominately Rwandan Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Ntaganda secured a position for himself as a general in Congo's army. The Congolese government said it would not execute the ICC arrest warrant against him in the interest of maintaining peace, contending that Ntaganda is needed to keep the former CNDP troops integrated in the Congolese army.
Ntaganda's putsch, and the subsequent arrest and detention without charge of Nkunda in Rwanda, deeply divided the CNDP movement. A number of Nkunda supporters objected to Ntaganda's leadership, though they took up their new positions in the Congolese army. Other civilians and activists with no links to the CNDP who have exposed Ntaganda's human rights violations and called for his arrest have also been the targets of arbitrary arrests and intimidation by Ntaganda and his supporters.
Assassinations, Disappearances, and Arbitrary Arrests
The most recent assassination occurred on September 14, when Lt. Col. Antoine Balibuno, a well known and respected former member of Nkunda's inner circle, was shot dead in the center of Goma. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that, hours before his murder, Balibuno had been called to a meeting at a bar with Lt. Col Kabakule Kennedy and Lt. Col. John Asiki, two close supporters of Ntaganda. He reluctantly went to the meeting accompanied by close confidants.
At Kennedy and Asiki's insistence, Balibuno left the bar with them later in the evening and entered their vehicle. He phoned a friend from the vehicle shortly thereafter, leaving the phone line open. The friend could hear him on the phone asking those in the car why they were taking him to Ntaganda's house.
The friend on the other end of the phone told Human Rights Watch in an interview that Balibuno said, "You said we were going to Dallas [a nightclub in Goma], but now we're going to Bosco's house... This isn't what we agreed to. Now there's a jeep full of soldiers blocking the road. I don't understand. Are you going to kill me here?" Then the phone cut off. Minutes later, around 10 p.m., Balibuno was shot dead. A policeman who heard the shots and went to investigate found his body outside the old VIP restaurant in the center of Goma, with bullet wounds in his head, neck, and chest.
In the months prior to his assassination, Balibuno had repeatedly told Human Rights Watch and others that he had been threatened by Ntaganda for refusing to support Ntaganda's leadership of the CNDP. Less than a week before his assassination, Balibuno told Human Rights Watch that Ntaganda had instructed Kennedy to form a "commando unit" to carry out assassinations and kidnappings of those opposed to Ntaganda.
The murder of Balibuno immediately raised tensions between the Nkunda and Ntaganda factions of the CNDP. People close to Balibuno received threatening phone calls, warning them that they would be next. Judicial officials told Human Rights Watch they were reluctant to follow up on the murder case, fearing reprisals from Ntaganda. No arrests have been made, despite clear leads as to who was involved in the murder.
"President Kabila claims that Ntaganda is necessary for the peace process, but Ntaganda's brutal targeting of opponents and blatant disregard for Congolese law and basic human rights is no way to achieve peace," Van Woudenberg said.
At least seven other people with family or other connections to Nkunda have been assassinated in the past four months. One of the assassinations documented by Human Rights Watch took place in Gisenyi, a town in Rwanda bordering Goma, in which Rwandan state agents may have assisted in the killing.
On June 20, a small group of men, including at least one known bodyguard of Ntaganda and individuals whom witnesses described as Rwandan security agents, forcefully entered the home of 77-year-old Denis Ntare Semadwinga, an influential former member of the CNDP with close ties to Nkunda. Semadwinga was repeatedly stabbed in the chest and his throat was slit. Despite repeated calls by neighbors and family members to the Rwandan police for help, no officers arrived for at least two hours.
Friends and family members say that Semadwinga was targeted because he had been opposed to Ntaganda's leadership of the CNDP. He had been called in for questioning by the Rwandan security services before his murder and questioned about his support for Nkunda. According to reports received by Human Rights Watch, Semadwinga may also have been in contact with Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa, an opponent of the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame. In June 2010, Nyamwasa narrowly escaped a murder attempt in South Africa. Individuals in Rwanda suspected of having links with Nyamwasa have also received threats.
In addition to those assassinated, seven other civilians and army officers critical of Ntaganda have been arbitrarily arrested on Ntaganda's orders since January, according to interviews with victims and other credible reports received by Human Rights Watch. Most were detained at the military intelligence prison in Goma. In nearly all cases, Ntaganda dictated what the charges should be, those arrested told Human Rights Watch. Prison and judicial officials told the detainees that they were instructed to treat their cases differently, and not to follow due process, since the individuals were detained on the direct orders of Ntaganda.
In three cases, judicial authorities investigated the alleged charges but found no evidence that the men were connected to any offense. However, the judicial authorities informed the detainees they could not release them because of Ntaganda's involvement. In other cases, there were limited investigations, or none. Some detainees later paid a bribe for their release and fled into exile. Others were released after several weeks or months without the cases being transferred to judicial authorities.
Others with no connection to the CNDP or Nkunda, but who had criticized Ntaganda, have also been targeted. Sylvestre Bwira Kyahi, the civil society president of Masisi territory, was abducted in Goma on August 24, most likely on Ntaganda's order, and held for a week in an underground prison. Bwira had been in hiding since late July following a threatening phone call from Ntaganda's "secretary" about a public letter Bwira had written to the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, denouncing, among other things, abuses by troops under Ntaganda's command and calling for Ntaganda's arrest on the basis of the ICC arrest warrant.
In detention, Bwira was blindfolded, tied to a pillar, and repeatedly beaten. He was questioned by soldiers he identified as Tutsi and belonging to the CNDP, whose leadership is largely Tutsi, about why he opposed the group. Following pressure from civil society and human rights groups, Bwira was "provisionally released." Bwira told Human Rights Watch that before he was freed, the soldiers injected his leg with an unknown substance. Bwira is still receiving medical care for the complications caused by this injection and his treatment in detention.
Human Rights Watch received information about another four arbitrary arrests and disappearances in Gisenyi and Cyangugu, Rwandan towns bordering eastern Congo, in which members of the Rwandan security forces and possibly soldiers loyal to Ntaganda may have been involved. Those who disappeared include Sheikh Iddy Abbasi, a former supporter of Nkunda who was abducted outside his home in Gisenyi in March 2010 and has not been seen since.
"We urge the Rwandan authorities to investigate the killings and disappearances which occurred on Rwandan territory and bring to justice those responsible," Van Woudenberg said.
A Record of Human Rights Violations
Ntaganda is sought on an arrest warrant from the ICC for the war crime of enlisting and conscripting children as soldiers and using them in hostilities in 2002 and 2003 in the Ituri district of eastern Congo. In addition to the war crimes that form the basis of the ICC arrest warrant, Ntaganda was also allegedly in command of combatants who arrested, tortured, or killed hundreds of civilians in Ituri between August 2002 and March 2003. United Nations peacekeepers have said that troops under Ntaganda's command were also responsible for killing a Kenyan UN peacekeeper in January 2004 and for kidnapping a Moroccan peacekeeper later that year.
More recently, in November 2008 in North Kivu, CNDP troops under Ntaganda's command killed an estimated 150 people in the town of Kiwanja, one of the worst massacres in North Kivu in the past two years. In 2009, after Ntaganda was made a general in the Congolese army, troops under his command deliberately killed at least 270 civilians in the area between Nyabiondo and Pinga, in western Masisi territory. In the first six months of 2010, Human Rights Watch documented 25 attacks on villages in the same area, resulting in the deaths of at least 105 civilians. The operations may in part have been motivated by an effort to gain control of the area's fertile farmland. Congolese army soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch said Ntaganda played a command role in these attacks.
The ICC has jurisdiction over these additional grave international crimes. Human Rights Watch has called on the ICC prosecutor to investigate these incidents and charge Ntaganda if the evidence permits.
On October 11, French authorities arrested Callixte Mbarushimana in France, the executive secretary of the Rwandan FDLR, the group against whom Ntaganda purports to be fighting. Mbarushimana was sought on an ICC arrest for serious crimes committed in eastern Congo in 2009.
"The failure to hold Ntaganda accountable for his past crimes has left him at liberty to continue to perpetrate atrocities," said Van Woudenberg. "Ending impunity for Ntaganda's crimes is essential for breaking the cycle of violence and ensuring that all sides to the conflict face justice for their brutal attacks on civilians."
Trouble for the UN Mission
The participation of Ntaganda in military operations in eastern Congo also causes significant problems for the UN stabilization mission in Congo, MONUSCO. On October 6, Reuters News Agency published an exclusive interview with Ntaganda in which he confirmed he played a leading role in military operations in eastern Congo, known as Amani Leo, backed by UN peacekeepers.
Ntaganda's confirmation of his role is backed up by internal army meeting notes, signed military orders, and confirmation from other army officers that Ntaganda gives them orders, all of which came to light in 2009. The Congolese government continues to deny that Ntaganda plays a role in operation Amani Leo.
Under MONUSCO's conditionality policy for support to Congolese army military operations, adopted in late 2009, and legal advice from the UN's own lawyers, MONUSCO may not support an operation in which an individual sought on an ICC arrest warrant plays a role.
The UN's Office of Legal Affairs (OLA) provided the following specific advice to the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo in April 2009: "There would also be significant legal obstacles to MONUC participating in the operation envisaged in the Directive if Bosco Ntaganda were to play a prominent role in that operation, whether as a commander of, or senior officer in, one or more of the FARDC units involved, or as a staff officer involved in the planning or execution of the operation or otherwise."
The UN Security Council is due to discuss the UN peacekeeping mission in Congo this week in New York.
"The UN mission should provide support to the Congolese government to arrest Ntaganda, as they have done in others cases of human rights abusers, and suspend their support of Amani Leo operations until this has been done," Van Woudenberg said. "Failure to do so places the UN peacekeepers in the untenable position of supporting a suspected war criminal wanted by the ICC."