By Elvis Katsana
Last month, the International Criminal Court’s decided to reduce Germain Katanga’s sentence. People in the Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo are hoping that he will play a key role in convincing other rebels in the region to hand in their weapons.
The ICC convicted Katanga of war crimes and crimes against humanity for a massacre in the village of Bogoro in Ituri in 2003. He was transferred to The Hague in 2007 and in 2014, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. In mid-November, the Appeals Chamber of the ICC reviewed Katanga’s sentence and decided to reduce it. He will be released on 18 January 2016. In a statement to the ICC, Katanga said he wanted to go back to the DRC to live near his family and become a farmer.
Turning a page after the war
In the eastern DRC, where Katanga was the leader of the Patriotic Resistance Force in Ituri (FRPI), people are expecting a lot from him. “We’re looking forward to his return”, said Kaymbe, a 27-year-old farmer who lives close to where Katanga committed his crimes. “Despite what he did, he has served his sentence and paid. Now, it’s time to turn a page towards a better future for all of us.”
The president of civil society groups in Ituri Province, Jean Bosco Lalo, agrees. “There’s no problem for him to come back and live amongst the Lendu and Hema communities, which now cohabit peacefully.” Rivalries between these two communities were one of the reasons for the war in this region, which led to conflicts by ethnically-based militias for control of the many gold mines. Lalo says it’s important to prove that people can forgive because the future depends on that. People in the region, he says, have accepted to live with people they know committed crimes during the war.
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch in the DRC has asked the ICC to explain its decision to free Katanga “to the affected communities and to prepare his return to the country”. According to HRW, “the ICC has a responsibility to monitor the security situation and to ensure that the victims, witnesses and others who were involved in his trial are safe”.
According to Margot Tedesco, the ICC’s field outreach coordinator in the DRC, “the Victims and Witnesses Unit will continue to protect the victims and witnesses in the Katanga case, as well as in the other cases. It’s true that during the review of his sentence on 6 October, Katanga expressed a desire to return to the DRC when he was freed. We still don’t know whether he will actually come back. The Registrar needs to take the necessary steps to enforce the judges’ ruling, in consultation with the national authorities. At this point, we don’t have any more information than that.”
Can Katanga go back to the DRC?
Jean Omari works for a law firm in Ituri and the DRC capital Kinshasa and specialises in international criminal law. He has defended numerous victims in the province. According to Omari, “the ICC statutes foresee that once a prisoner has served his sentence, he can go back to his country of origin, but if the person thinks his safety is at risk or if he has another valid motive, he can ask for asylum in an ICC member country”.
A government official in Bunia, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that Katanga, like any Congolese citizen, has the right under the Congolese constitution to return home. “He’s served his sentence and paid for his crimes. But we won’t allow his return to become a destabilising factor in our efforts in favour of peace and peaceful cohabitation between the local communities. Since he played a key role in the war, we expect him to support lasting peace in Ituri, working in a dignified way to promote our society’s values.”
Jorkin Pituwa, a journalist who works at a local radio station in Bunia and who has covered the Katanga case, believes “people welcome the decision by the ICC judges. They’re happy he was sentenced and that security has returned to the region.” He says many local people believe that Katanga could help the Congolese government and the UN forces to end the rebellions which are still taking place in the region.
Dr. Meddy is a cartoonist who works for Cartoon Movement.