As a few raindrops trickled onto the freshly laid asphalt outside the International Criminal Court, a crowd of people in suits made their way to the front door. Outside there was no sign of a big crowd of supporters shouting for the liberation of the accused.
Bosco Ntaganda, dubbed the Terminator for his alleged gruesome attacks on the civilian population, arrived at the court earlier in the morning. A prison vehicle transported him the six kilometres from the prison in Scheveningen to the ICC building. In the car, Ntaganda wouldn’t even have noticed the lack of people outside the Court, or the signature Dutch weather. Rolling through the gate, where a single guard stood just inside, he was then taken underneath the court building. From there, he later made his way up to the courtroom, always escorted by court security guards.
Inside the Court, entering through a revolving door just a few metres from where Ntaganda had earlier arrived, there was no huge crowd waiting in the lobby. Only three people sat in the red armchairs set up to allow visitors and observers to get a seat before heading to the second floor’s viewing gallery.
One floor underneath the gallery sits the media centre. Inside you could count the people on two hands. Francophones had already scooped up the tables closest to the plasma screens where the proceedings would later be displayed – with a frustrating 30-minute delay. On tables, you could see everything from tablets to laptops, hand cameras to broadcast-studio sized equipment.
The viewing gallery holds roughly 50 people, with large blinds in front of the window blocking the view into the courtroom. The gallery filled up as the start of the hearing inched closer. The blinds opened to reveal a fully seated courtroom but no judges. Prompted by the court clerk, the courtroom and viewing gallery alike arose as the three judges entered.
Ntaganda, just like anyone else
Bosco Ntaganda sat behind an in-court defence team of six people, led by Luc Boutin and Stéphane Bourgeon. Well-groomed, wearing a dark blue suit with a striped tie, Ntaganda looked no different from any other person in the building. But what made him stand out were the two security guards who flanked him at all times. They almost mirrored his every move, making sure they stood up as he stood up to address the Court. For the guards to be kept ‘fresh’, they rotated with another set of guards on a regular basis.
In front of him, Ntaganda had a stylish black leather notebook. As the 18 charges were read out to him in detail, one by one, Ntaganda sat with folded hands, casually holding onto his blue pen. The court officer reading the charges glanced over towards the accused ahead of each new count, but their eyes never meet.
After being prompted to enter a plea, Bosco Ntaganda stood up, clutched his hands behind his back, and pled not guilty to all 18 counts. Afterwards, the word was handed over to the prosecution team, led by ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
Opening statements for the prosecution
As she started her opening statements, Ntaganda started using his notebook, taking notes of the numbers and jotting down the names of the witnesses and victims mentioned by Bensouda.
The opening statement by the chief prosecutor was made passionately. Fatou Bensouda looked comfortable and determined as she delivered her statement in court.
The media centre had at this time filled up, with everything from broadcast, print and online journalists to NGO representatives. With headphones on, people listened carefully to the proceedings, while quickly tapping away on their keyboards. Exchanges of information, thoughts and casual pleasantries could be heard all around the room, although people rarely looked away from their screens.
Rape, beatings and indiscriminate hunting of civilians
The relay stick of the Office of the Prosecutor had now been handed over to Nicole Samson as she started describing the situation in the Ituri region in the early 2000s. She explained in detail the hierarchy above and underneath Ntaganda, including several references to sentenced war criminal Thomas Lubanga.
Moving onto the witnesses, Samson described in intricate detail what type of evidence the witnesses would give throughout the trial. This included graphic descriptions, how some UPC soldiers captured, beat and raped women and young girls, ran into the forest to hunt down civilians and shot at anyone they saw.
Her calm demeanour was in sharp contrast to the passionate delivery of Fatou Bensouda, as she described the evidence of children in rolled up camouflage clothing, dragging their weapons on the ground as they were unable to carry them. As Samson rounded off the early part of the session and Judge Fremr announced a break, the collective media centre finally seemed to come up for a breath.
NGO representatives were asked to make comments and give interviews, phone calls were made and the conversations became more casual. People left the room for a short break, to grab snacks or refreshments. Phones left behind rang and rang, being a thorn in the side of broadcast journalists trying to complete their interviews.
As the session resumed after a 30-minute break, it was back to business for everyone in and around the proceedings. The viewing gallery was constantly shifting, with people going in and out and the security guard asking for silence when the casual whispers between observers become a bit too loud.
The presentation of the prosecution’s opening statement continued, with Nicole Samson focusing on two main attacks which a majority of the charges relate to. Samson continued to present images, videos, maps and graphs, in an attempt to give as much context and information as possible. But the interest and attention had seemingly decreased, with articles being written, interviews being made and 140-character pieces of information being sent out at lightning speed.
As the day came to an end, after a bombardment of information in the prosecution’s statement, the crowds withdrew in order to regroup ahead of tomorrow’s statements by the victims’ representatives and the defence. In the lobby downstairs, onlookers were shouted at by court staff when attempting to sneak a picture in an area where it’s not allowed.
As the prosecution summed up its opening statements and the Court adjourned, the viewing gallery arose as the judges left. Observers and professionals alike left the viewing gallery, marking the end of the first day of the trial against Bosco Ntaganda. After a day of one-way statements by the prosecution, the only thing we know is that this trial has merely taken its first step. What the next step will be and in which direction, we’ll only find out tomorrow.
Lead image: Bosco Ntaganda on the first day of his trial at the ICC (Photo: Michael Kooren/ANP)