AMSTERDAM, Netherlands – Two former Congolese militia leaders should be tried on war crimes charges for alleged rapes, pillaging and mass murder in a 2003 attack that decimated a village in eastern Congo, international prosecutors argued Friday.
The case of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo is only the second to be heard by the International Criminal Court, created in 2002 as the world's permanent war crimes tribunal.
"The evidence will reveal that over 200 children, women, elderly and civilian men were killed in an attack during which women were sexually enslaved in camps and repeatedly raped," deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said at the start of the hearings, which are due to run through July 16.
Prosecutors have charged Katanga, 30, and Ngudjolo, 37, with six counts of war crimes including conscripting child soldiers, sexual enslavement and murder. But the charges have yet to be confirmed by the court.
The Hague-based court's three-judge panel will hear from prosecutors, defense lawyers and victims representatives before determining whether there is enough evidence to support the charges. No date has been set for a ruling.
The two suspects will not enter pleas unless judges order a trial.
Bensouda told the court that, after soldiers under their command razed Bogoro village in Congo's eastern Ituri region on Feb. 24, 2003, the suspects "celebrated their 'victory' under the mango trees in the deserted town center."
"The bodies of women, children and elderly victims lay scattered around," Bensouda alleged.
Defense lawyers will respond with opening statements Monday. Ngudjolo has asked for a dismissal, arguing that he already has been tried and acquitted on similar charges by a Congolese court.
Katanga and Ngudjolo each led a militia group during the Second Congo War and allegedly combined forces to destroy Bogoro, which was controlled by a rival ethnic faction.
Prosecutors said Bogoro had been targeted to ensure the easy traffic of goods and supplies on a road that passed through it.
Under the court's rules, victims' representatives also took part in the hearings.
A victim identified only as A012 "lost also six of her children, killed with machete blows, and of course all of her cows and property," representative Carine Bapita said.
She said the victims believe the massacre resulted not from tensions between local rival Lendu and Hema ethnic groups, but from groups in Uganda and Rwanda exacerbating those tensions to exploit the region's natural resources.
"The victims are convinced that Mr. Katanga and Mr. Ngudjolo are only the tip of iceberg that caused the destiny of ship of their loved ones to sink," Bapita said.
As part of peace negotiations, Katanga later became a general in Congo's regular army, and Ngudjolo a colonel. But each was detained and sent to The Hague after the court issued arrest warrants — Katanga in 2007 and Ngudjolo in 2008.
Prosecutors said they would give details of evidence next week including dozens of witness accounts of the men's movement and actions, as well as a written plan for the attack.
"This case is about the criminal responsibility of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, who deliberately planned, orchestrated and ordered their respective troops to execute their plan to attack and wipe out or erase the village," Bensouda said.