International Criminal Court judges on Monday convicted Congolese rebel chief Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda of war crimes including directing massacres of civilians and rape, in a badly needed victory for prosecutors in The Hague.
Ntaganda, 45, was a “key leader” who gave orders to “target and kill civilians” in Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile, mineral-rich Ituri region in 2002 and 2003, head judge Robert Fremr said.
The atrocities included a massacre at a village where babies, children and adults were disembowelled or had their heads smashed in, the judge said.
Ntaganda was also responsible for the rape and sexual slavery of underage girls, and of recruiting troops under the age of 15, as well as guilty of personally killing a Roman Catholic priest, the court said.
The defendant “fulfilled a very important military function, he was one of the key leaders” of the rebel group, judges said.
“Mr Ntaganda’s skills were held in high regard,” they said.
“In relation to these direct orders to target and kill civilians, Mr Ntaganda endorsed criminal conduct by his by own orders.”
Ntaganda will be sentenced at a later date after judges hear submissions from victims. Judges can give a life sentence.
The soft-spoken rebel leader – known for his pencil moustache and a penchant for fine dining – told judges during his trial that he was “soldier not a criminal” and that the “Terminator” nickname did not apply to him.
Rwandan-born Ntaganda was found guilty of 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity for his role in the brutal conflict that wracked the DRC’s north-eastern region.
Prosecutors portrayed him as the ruthless leader of ethnic Tutsi revolts during the turmoil in the DRC after the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda.
More than 60,000 people have been killed since the violence erupted in the region in 1999, rights groups said, as militias battle each other for control of mineral resources.
Prosecutors said Ntaganda was central to the planning and operations of the Union of Congolese Patriots rebels and its military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC).
The FPLC killed at least 800 people as it fought rival militias in Ituri, prosecutors said.
In one attack directed by Ntaganda, judges said that soldiers killed at least 49 people captured in a banana field behind a village using “sticks and batons as well as knives and machetes”.
“Men, women and children and babies were found in the field. Some bodies were found naked, some had hands tied up, some had their heads crushed. Several bodies were disembowelled or otherwise mutilated,” Mr Fremr said.
Mr Fremr said 102 witnesses testified at Ntaganda’s trial, including a woman who survived having her throat slit by his forces.
Formerly a Congolese army general, Ntaganda then became a founding member of the M23 rebel group, which was eventually defeated by Congolese government forces in 2013.
The first suspect ever to surrender to the ICC voluntarily, he walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali in 2013 and asked to be sent to the court, based in the Netherlands.
Ntaganda is one of five Congolese warlords brought before the ICC, which was set up in 2002 as an independent international body to prosecute those accused of the world’s worst crimes.
Ntaganda's former FPLC commander Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012. But the ICC has suffered a string of setbacks over recent years with some of its most high-profile suspects walking free, including Ivorian former leader Laurent Gbagbo earlier this year.
Last year, a former DRC vice president, Jean-Pierre Bemba, was acquitted on appeal of crimes allegedly committed by his militia in neighbouring Central African Republic.
Set up in 2002, the court has convicted only four people of war crimes and five more for interfering with witnesses. It has also been criticised for mainly trying African suspects so far.
The US administration of President Donald Trump attacked the court after warning it against prosecuting American service members over war crimes in Afghanistan.
In a separate hearing on Monday, judges are to determine whether there is enough evidence for a Malian extremist to face trial for demolishing Timbuktu’s fabled shrines, as well as for rape, torture and sexual slavery.
Al Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud was captured and transferred to the court last year.