THE HAGUE, Netherlands – The International Criminal Court on Tuesday acquitted a Congolese militia leader of all charges of leading fighters who destroyed a strategic village in eastern Congo in 2003, hacking to death and raping some 200 people including women and children.
The acquittal of Mathieu Ngudjolo on charges including rape and murder is only the second verdict in the court's 10-year history and the first time it has cleared a suspect.
Judges said that the testimony of three key prosecution witnesses was unreliable and could not prove definitively that Ngudjolo led the rebel attack on the village of Bogoro, but they emphasized that Ngudjolo's acquittal did not mean no crimes occurred in the village.
"If an allegation has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt ... this does not necessarily mean that the alleged fact did not occur," Presiding Judge Bruno Cotte of France said.
Prosecutors say villagers were hacked to death with machetes and many of them raped by rebel fighters.
Rights organizations immediately called on the court to explain the acquittal to victims and survivors in the village of Bogoro, in Congo's eastern Ituri region, and improve its investigations.
"The acquittal of Ngudjolo leaves the victims of Bogoro and other massacres by his forces without justice for their suffering," said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. "The ICC prosecutor needs to strengthen its investigations of those responsible for grave crimes in Ituri, including high-ranking officials in Congo, Rwanda and Uganda who supported the armed groups fighting there."
Judges ordered Ngudjolo's immediate release, but the court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Besnouda, said she would appeal the verdicts and asked for Ngudjolo to be kept in custody. The court scheduled a hearing for later Tuesday to consider the request.
Ngudjolo showed no emotion as Cotte acquitted him.
Parts of eastern Congo remain virtual war zones even today, with rebel fighters believed to be backed by Rwanda locked in conflict with government forces.
While Ngudjolo was the first defendant cleared by the ICC, other war crimes tribunals based in The Hague and elsewhere have in the past acquitted other suspects from conflicts in war zones such as the former Yugoslavia.
Judges are still considering the evidence against another militia leader who stood trial with Ngudjolo, Germain Katanga, and are expected to deliver verdicts next year.
The only other ICC verdict, handed down earlier this year, convicted another Congolese rebel leader, Thomas Lubanga, of using child soldiers in battles in Ituri. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.