In its second-ever verdict, the International Criminal Court (ICC), on 18 December, acquitted former militia leader Mathieu Ngudjolo [Chui] of war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to a 2003 massacre in Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) northeastern Ituri District.
Ordering the immediate release of Ngudjolo, ICC judges said the prosecution - which has 30 days to appeal the ruling - had failed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that he had been in command of fighters from the Lendu community who attacked the village of Bogoro on 24 February 2003.
Before delivering the verdict, presiding judge Bruno Cotte said that “declaring an accused person not guilty does not mean the Chamber declares him innocent”. The French judge stressed that this decision “does not in any way deny the suffering of the population on that day”.
IRIN has collected reactions from Bunia, the main town in Ituri, where a 1999-2005 conflict between the Lendu and Hema communities caused tens of thousands of deaths and massive displacement:
Gaby, bartender: “We are satisfied because most thought that the court is for Africans and particularly for the Congolese… [But] justice is not fair. [Hema militia leader] Thomas Lubanga was convicted in March of recruiting child soldiers. We thought Ngudjolo would also be convicted. We are surprised he was acquitted.”
Chantale, maid: “I think this decision is unfair because he destroyed our region. He should remain in prison. His name was mentioned a lot in the massacres of 2002 and 2003.”
Lendu, resident: “There is no evidence against him, so he's right. This judgment is valid.”
Richard, taxi driver: “For me, it is the ICC that has all the power - to arrest, convict, set free. If Ngudjolo is being released, I applaud that.”
Mateso, storekeeper: “Nobody has seen the killings in Bogoro. The government arrested him on the basis of hearsay. Luckily, God acted and freed him. We are thankful for that and expect Ngudjolo to return so that we can build the country together.”
Dieudonné, technician: “Many people who are at the Hague trial talk about what happened in Ituri, yet they have not experienced, and do not know, the truth. It’s understandable that they lack evidence to convict Ngudjolo.”
Bossa Me Mitterrand, human rights activist with the NGO Justice Plus: "We recommend the prosecutor file an appeal… We ask the new prosecutor [Fatou Bensouda, who replaced Luis Moreno-Ocampo earlier in 2012] to extend the investigations because we believe that Thomas Lubanga, Germain Katanga [another Lendu leader, still on trial at the ICC] and others are only small fry and there are big fish that are still at large. There are people in neighboring countries that have trained, funded and equipped these rebels, but until now nobody has been prosecuted for this. The prosecutor should not restrict himself to those who carried out their orders.”
Human Rights Watch:Mitterrand’s view is echoed by a statement Human Rights Watch (HRW) released after the acquittal. The ICC “should re-energize efforts to prosecute others for atrocities in the DRC,” it said.
“The acquittal of Ngudjolo leaves the victims of Bogoro and other massacres by his forces without justice for their suffering,” said Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, HRW international justice advocacy director.
“The ICC prosecutor needs to strengthen its investigations of those responsible for grave crimes in Ituri, including high-ranking officials in DRC, Rwanda, and Uganda who supported the armed groups fighting there,” she added.