Congolese warlord makes first appearance in court

Bosco Ntaganda makes first public appearance before a Hague court after avoiding arrest for 7 years.

A picture taken on January 11, 2009 shows rebel General Bosco Ntaganda, self declared leader of the CNDP, escorted by comrades at his mountain base in Kabati. Picture: AFP

AMSTERDAM - Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda makes his first public appearance before the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Tuesday after evading arrest on war crimes charges for seven years - a boost to the court following a string of setbacks.

Ntaganda is accused of murder, rape and other atrocities over a 15-year-period of fighting in Rwandan-backed rebellions in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He unexpectedly gave himself up to diplomats at the US Embassy in Rwanda last week, walking in off the street and demanding to be handed over the ICC. Within days he was put on a plane to The Hague.

His appearance in the court almost seven years after the court first issued a warrant for his arrest is a much-needed success story for the ICC following the collapse of several cases.

Most recently, prosecutors withdrew their case against Kenyan civil servant Francis Muthaura after a witness retracted his testimony, prompting lawyers for his co-accused Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya's president-elect, to demand that judges also drop charges against him.

With many of the court's suspects, including Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, at large and beyond its reach, Ntaganda's arrival is especially welcome to prosecutors and activists.

"Ntaganda's appearance at the ICC after years as a fugitive offers victims of horrific crimes a real hope of seeing justice," said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

"Ntaganda's detention in The Hague shows that no one is above the law."

He is accused of recruiting child soldiers, murder, ethnic persecution, sexual slavery and rape during a 2002-2003 conflict in north-eastern Congo's mineral-rich Ituri district.

His whereabouts had been unknown after he had fled to Rwanda with hundreds of his followers, and his decision to turn himself in to the US Embassy in the capital Kigali caught diplomats there by surprise.

Analysts said he may have felt that his life would be safer in an ICC detention cell than in an increasingly hostile Rwanda. But it could still be a long while before the case moves to trial.

At Tuesday's hearing, Ntaganda will be asked to confirm his identity. The court is also likely to appoint a lawyer for him, and set a date for a hearing at which judges will decide whether the evidence against him is strong enough to warrant a trial.

The warlord, who was most recently a commander in the M23 rebel movement, will have been seen by doctors soon after his arrival at the court's detention centre.

He may also have been issued with a suit for his first court appearance, to replace his fatigues.

"We do everything that we can for the physical and psychological well-being of detainees," said ICC spokesman Fadi El-Abdallah, the ICC's spokesperson.

That included providing smart clothes for the suspect to wear to court.