A warlord responsible for mass murder, rape and abduction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been convicted of war crimes by the international criminal court.
Bosco Ntaganda, 45, was a key militia leader who ordered the massacre of civilians in DRC’s restive Ituri province in 2002 and 2003, judges in The Hague said.
The atrocities included a mass killing at a village where people – including children and babies – were “disembowelled or had their heads smashed in”, it added.
Ntaganda was also responsible for the rape and sexual slavery of underage girls and for recruiting troops under the age of 15, and personally killed a Roman Catholic priest, the court said.
Ntaganda told judges he was a “soldier not a criminal”.
The conviction is an important achievement for the ICC, which has had a series of setbacks in recent years. The institution remains deeply controversial, especially in Africa where most of its investigations have been focused.
Ntaganda, whose cruelty and violence earned him the nickname “the Terminator”, will be sentenced on 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity at a later date after judges hear submissions from victims. He could face a life sentence.
Campaigners welcomed the court’s decision. “We hope that today’s verdict provides some consolation to the thousands affected by his grotesque crimes [and]paves the way for them to finally obtain a measure of justice [and]reparations,” tweeted Amnesty International.
Congolese organisations that collected and submitted evidence to the ICC to help secure the conviction of Ntaganda said other suspected criminals still enjoyed impunity, and atrocities continued to be committed in DRC.
The eastern provinces of DRC have been wracked by conflict for many decades. More than 60,000 people have been killed since violence erupted in the region in 1999, according to rights groups, as militias compete for control of valuable mines and timber.
“To date, the efforts made by national authorities to identify and prosecute perpetrators responsible for the alleged crimes … have been limited and insufficient,” a coalition of campaign groups in DRC said in a statement.
Prosecutors said Ntaganda was central to the planning and operations for the Union of Congolese Patriots rebels and its military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, which killed at least 800 people as it fought rival militias in Ituri.
The case focused on two specific attacks, one in late 2002 and another in early 2003.
In one attack directed by Ntaganda, judges said soldiers killed at least 49 captured people in a banana field behind a village using “sticks and batons as well as knives and machetes”.
“Men, women, and children and babies were found in the field. Some bodies were found naked. Some had hands tied up. Some had their heads crushed. Several bodies were disembowelled or otherwise mutilated,” said the presiding judge, Robert Fremr.
Ntaganda was also implicated in violence in 2008 that led to the deaths of at least 150 people, and was a founding member of the M23 rebel group, which was eventually defeated by Congolese government forces in 2013 in bloody battles around the city of Goma.
The first suspect ever to voluntarily surrender to the ICC, Ntaganda walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, six years ago and asked to be sent to the court, based in the Netherlands. Experts believe Ntaganda gave himself up because he feared assassination after the collapse of the M23 movement.
The ICC was set up in 2002 as an independent international body to prosecute those accused of the world’s worst crimes where national authorities were incapable of bringing perpetrators to justice.
Prosecutions have not been straightforward. In February, the former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo was acquitted by the ICC of charges of crimes against humanity. The convictions of the former Congolese vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba for war crimes and crimes against humanity were overturned last year. Many in Africa have been critical of the court.
The US administration of Donald Trump has also attacked the ICC after warning it against prosecuting US service members for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. In April judges at the court blocked that investigation, saying prosecution was unlikely to be successful because those targeted, including the US, Afghan authorities and the Taliban, would not cooperate.by guardian news