Editor’s note: This story contains details of violence that some readers may find upsetting.
A notorious warlord whose activities in the Democratic Republic of Congo earned him the moniker “the Terminator” has been sentenced to 30 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The International Criminal Court handed down the penalty for Bosco Ntaganda during a hearing Thursday at The Hague, Netherlands.
The sentence is the longest ever meted out by the ICC, and Ntaganda has already moved to file an appeal.
Ntaganda was convicted in July on 18 counts, ranging from murder and use of child soldiers to rape and sexual slavery, related to operations that the Rwandan-born militia leader directed in the Congolese region of Ituri in 2002 and 2003. Judges found that he helped plan attacks by the Union of Congolese Patriots and its military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, or UPC/FPLC, which sought to expel members of the Lendu ethnic group with a brutal campaign of violence.
He is the first defendant the ICC has convicted of sexual slavery and crimes of sexual violence against his own troops.
Ntaganda’s sentence “sends a powerful message that those who commit serious crimes against the people, no matter their positions, can be held to account,” Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director of Human Rights Watch, said of the conviction.
“I hope it will play a role in deterring others who are still committing abuses against civilians in Congo and elsewhere. This might make security forces think twice before commanding forces to violate people’s rights, even during conflict.”
In at least one way, Ntaganda follows a trail already plied by his former collaborator, Thomas Lubanga, who in 2012 drew the first conviction ever handed down by the ICC. Lubanga, the former president of the UPC/FPLC, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for recruiting and conscripting child soldiers.
Ntaganda, who had been wanted on an ICC arrest warrant since 2006, surprised the world a year after Lubanga’s conviction by voluntarily turning himself in, apparently to escape infighting that was then wracking his new insurgent group.
More than 2,100 victims participated in the trial, which opened in 2015 and lasted more than three years. Prosecutors brought forward a litany of alleged crimes — including deeply unsettling acts of violence against civilians. Regarding one incident, in which Ntaganda’s cohort murdered at least 49 Lendu captives, the court’s unanimous judgment was clinical in its description of the scale and variety of the brutality:
“Bodies of those killed were discovered in the banana field. There were bodies of men, women, and children, including babies. Some bodies were naked. Some sticks and pounders were lying amongst the corpses, but no other weapons. Some bodies, but not all, had been tied up. Some looked like they had been beaten to death. Some bodies had slit throats, and some had been decapitated. Some had other knife cuts. Some looked like they had been killed by machete. Some had been disembowelled. Some were missing their genitals and some looked like their genitals had been perforated with sticks. The body of at least one woman looked like she had had a baby cut out of her. At least one corpse had bullet wounds around the mouth. The heads of some bodies had been crushed.”
The court found that Ntaganda contributed either directly or indirectly to this atrocity and a number of others over the course of two major operations targeting the Lendu.
Ntaganda’s conviction is the second major verdict rendered by the International Criminal Court this year. The first ended quite differently, as judges dismissed charges of war crimes against former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and his former youth minister, Charles Blé Goudé.