UPDATE 5-In second verdict, war crimes court acquits Congolese

Thomas Escritt
Reuters Middle East

* Second ever verdict is first acquittal at ICC

* Rights activists urge improvements in prosecutions

* Ngudjolo was accused of overseeing killing, pillage, rape

* Prosecutors seen failing to investigate chain of command

(Adds detail on Ngudjolo arrest, edits)

THE HAGUE, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Congolese militia leader

Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui was acquitted at the Hague war crimes

court on Tuesday, after prosecutors failed to prove he ordered

atrocities in eastern Congo a decade ago.

Delivering only its second verdict in 10 years of existence,

the International Criminal Court (ICC) found Ngudjolo not guilty

of ordering killings during a war in Ituri district in 2003. In

its first ever verdict, delivered in July, the court had jailed

an opposing commander, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, for 14 years.

Ngudjolo was accused of war crimes and crimes against

humanity, including overseeing killings, rape and pillage. His

prosecutors will appeal the verdict and, though the court said

Ngudjolo should be freed in the meantime, it was not immediately

clear that he could leave the ICC detention facility for now.

The judges said they had no doubt the people of Ituri

suffered the massacres described at Ngudjolo's trial and critics

of the ICC called for better prosecutions in future in order

that victims and their surviving relatives should have justice.

"The people trusted the International Criminal Court more

than our national courts," said Emmanuel Folo of Ituri human

rights group Equitas. "After this decision, for those who were

victims of this, there is a feeling of disappointment. The

victims feel forgotten, abandoned by international justice."

The violence in Ituri was a localised ethnic clash over land

and resources among myriad conflicts that spun out of the wider

war in Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2003.

Some rebels involved in the current M23 insurgency in

neighbouring North Kivu province were involved in fighting in

Ituri - among them M23 leader Bosco Ntaganda, who is himself on

the ICC wanted list for war crimes alleged in Ituri in 2003.


Prosecutors accused Ngudjolo of ordering fighters to block

roads around the village of Bogoro in February 2003 in order to

kill civilians attempting to flee and said civilians, including

women and children, were burned alive in blazing houses. Some

200 people were killed when ethnic Lendu and Ngiti fighters

destroyed the homes of the village's mainly Hema inhabitants.

"The prosecution failed to investigate the chain of command

adequately as far as the attack in Bogoro is concerned,"

international criminal lawyer Nick Kaufmann said.

The ICC judges said prosecution witnesses who testified to

Ngudjolo's involvement were not credible. But president judge

Bruno Cotte also said: "This does not in any way throw into

question what befell the people of that area on that day."

Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch said: "The

acquittal of Ngudjolo leaves the victims of Bogoro and other

massacres by his forces without justice for their suffering.

"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."


Legal experts said it was unlikely the acquittal would be

overturned because new evidence cannot be introduced at appeal.

Appeals panels rarely reassess the credibility of witnesses.

Until then, it is not clear where Ngudjolo might go, if

anywhere. He remains under a United Nations travel ban dating

from his indictment. The Netherlands, where he has been detained

since 2008, is not obliged to take him in. A Congo government

spokesman said he saw no reason for Congo not to take Ngudjolo

back, but he suggested it may wait until after the appeal.

Ngudjolo was arrested by U.N. peacekeepers in 2003 but later

recruited to the Congolese army as part of efforts to integrate

former rebels. Made a colonel in 2006, he was arrested in the

Congolese capital Kinshasa in 2008 and handed over to the ICC.

The fate of Ngudjolo's co-accused Germain Katanga is yet to

be decided after judges split the two cases last month in a

controversial move some analysts said may increase the

probability of a conviction against the more prominent Katanga.

The court's first verdict found Lubanga guilty of recruiting

child soldiers to another militia in the same conflict in Ituri.

Some observers said the different outcomes of the trials for

militia leaders from different tribes could cause new friction.

"Lubanga was a Hema leader, and the acquittal of a Ngudjolo,

a Lendu, just after the conviction of a Hema could exacerbate

tension between the two ethnicities in Ituri," said Jennifer

Easterday of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

(Additional reporting by Joe Bavier in Abidjan and Pascal

Fletcher; Editing by Michael Roddy and Alastair Macdonald)

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