The International Criminal Court sentenced a former Congolese warlord guilty of ordering massacres, sexual slavery, and conscripting child soldiers to 30 years in prison Thursday. It’s the heaviest sentence ever handed down by the tribunal, and makes Ntaganda that first person convicted at the ICC for sexual slavery.
Bosco Ntaganda, a brutal military leader known as “The Terminator,” was sentenced for 13 counts of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity, carried out when he was head of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo militia in the restive province of Ituri in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 and 2003.
In July, Ntaganda was found guilty of atrocities including ordering massacres, rape, sexual slavery and conscripting child soldiers. His group carried out the crimes as they targeted ethnic rivals in a bid for control of Ituri, driving thousands out of the resource-rich province.
In his ruling, Judge Robert Fremr described Ntaganda as a key leader who gave orders to “target and kill civilians.”
In one such attack, his fighters murdered 49 people, including children and babies, in a banana field behind the village of Kobu, butchering them with sticks, knives and machetes.
“Some bodies were found naked, some had hands tied up, some had their heads crushed. Several bodies were disembowelled or otherwise mutilated,” Fremr said.
Ntaganda was also responsible for the rape and sexual slavery of children, including the systematic rape of female members of the militia by men in the group. He also oversaw the widespread conscription of child soldiers, and personally killed a Catholic priest.
Fremr said many of the victims or witnesses of Ntaganda’s crimes still bore “permanent scars, both physical and psychological, including long-term memory loss, neurological disturbances and extensive physical scarring.”
Ida Sawyer, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, said the case was historic: it was the first time the ICC has convicted someone for sexual slavery and for crimes of sexual violence against his own fighters.
“Ntaganda’s 30-year sentence sends a strong message that even people considered untouchable may one day be held to account,” Sawyer said. “While his victims’ pain cannot be erased, they can take some comfort in seeing justice prevail.”
But she said his convictions only covered crimes committed in Ituri province, and victims also want to see him prosecuted for attacks he led in other regions. Furthermore, she said, there are many more militia leaders still to be brought to justice over their crimes in eastern Congo, where about 130 armed groups remain active.
More than 60,000 people have been killed in clashes in the region since 1999, with rival militias fighting for control of mines and timber.
For years after committing his abuses in Ituri, Ntaganda was a symbol of the apparent impunity surrounding the conflict. He rejoined the Congolese national army, serving as a general from 2007 to 2012, before defecting to become a founding member of a new rebel group, M23, which rose up against the government.
He then became the first wanted suspect to ever surrender to the ICC, walking into the U.S. embassy in the capital of neighboring Rwanda in 2013 to give himself up. Prosecutors said this was because a split in M23 had resulted in threats to Ntaganda.
Ntaganda maintained his innocence during his trial, telling judges during his trial that he was “soldier, not a criminal.” He has already appealed his convictions.
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