ICC witnesses return to Kinshasa after failed asylum attempt

A woman walks up to the offices of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague (AFP Photo/Robin Utrecht)

Kinshasa (AFP) - Three Congolese witnesses who testified before the International Criminal Court have been returned to Kinshasa after failed asylum bids in the Netherlands, their lawyer said on Monday.

"They were sent back yesterday (Sunday)," Goran Sluiter told AFP after the men were transferred from a Dutch detention centre.

They arrived in the country early on Monday landing on a chartered flight, airport sources said.

Floribert Ndjabu, Pierre Celestin Mbodina and Sharif Manda Ndadza applied for asylum after testifying in 2011 in the cases of former Congolese militia bosses Mathieu Ngudjolo and Germain Katanga.

The three -- who were themselves behind bars in the Congo prior to being sent to testify at The Hague -- said they feared for their lives if sent back after implicating current Congolese President Joseph Kabila in crimes.

The ICC's Appeals Chamber in January ordered the three be returned after receiving guarantees from Kinshasa about their safety, including a commitment that they would not face the death penalty when their cases come to court.

A separate asylum process launched by the men was turned down by the Dutch government.

Rights groups including Amnesty International, who last month called on the Netherlands not to send them back, voiced grave concerns about their safety.

The Dutch decision to deny asylum "may put these individuals at risk of serious human rights violations if returned," Amnesty said.

"It is very much the Dutch government’s responsibility to ensure that the assurances they were given are followed up," Amnesty spokeswoman Nicole Sprokel told AFP.

"It is disappointing that the Dutch government took the risk of being complicit in possible human rights violations faced by the three witnesses in their country," added Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.

The Dutch government confirmed that the three had been sent back but declined to give further information.

Sluiter however told AFP he was "deeply disappointed by the decision."

The three men had previously been held in a Kinshasa prison suspected of committing a number of crimes. Two were alleged to have been involved in the killing of UN peacekeepers in the east of the country.

They were transferred to the ICC's Hague-based detention unit in 2011 in order to give evidence. A source at the airport said they were met by police on their arrival back in the country, and were expected to be taken to the military prison in Ndolo, in the Congolese capital.

Ngudjolo and Katanga were accused of being involved in a massacre at a village in the country's restive northeastern Ituri region in early 2003.

In December 2012, Ngudjolo was acquitted of war crimes after judges in The Hague said prosecutors failed to prove his commanding role in the attack on Bogoro village.

Katanga, whose case had been separated from Ngudjolo's, was sentenced to 12 years in May for arming the ethnic militia that carried out the attack.