Trial of 'Terminator' warlord will open in Hague, not DR Congo

Rwandan-born Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda is seen during his first appearance before judges of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on March 26, 2013 (AFP Photo/Peter Dejong)

The Hague (AFP) - The trial of former warlord Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed "The Terminator", will open in The Hague rather than the Democratic Republic of Congo due to concerns over witnesses' safety, the International Criminal Court announced Monday.

Rwandan-born Ntaganda faces 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in a brutal civil conflict in the DR Congo's volatile northeast a decade ago, including allegations that he used child soldiers and sex slaves in his rebel army.

A panel of ICC judges had recommended in March that the trial's opening statements be held in the city of Bunia in the country's northeast, in order to bring proceedings closer to the victims.

Opening a war crimes trial in the community -- with legal teams decamping from the court's headquarters in The Hague to the DR Congo -- would have been a historic first for the ICC.

But the court said Monday that "concerns over witnesses and victims' safety and well-being, as well as the security of the local communities involved", had been an important factor in deciding to hold the opening proceedings in The Hague instead.

The ICC said it also had to take into account "the concerns expressed by the victims that the accused's return would remind them of the suffering and trauma", as well as the logistics and costs of the move, estimated at more than 600,000 euros ($677,000).

"The ICC Presidency concluded that the potential benefits of holding proceedings in Bunia are, in view of the Presidency, outweighed by these risks," it said in a statement.

Prosecutors allege that Ntaganda, who surrendered to the court in a shock move last year, was involved in raping child and women soldiers and keeping them as sex slaves.

He is also accused of using child soldiers in his Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) in attacks prosecutors say killed at least 800 people as warlords battled rival militias for control in the mineral-rich Ituri province.

Ntaganda, 41, has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

He is the founder of the M23 rebel group that was eventually defeated by the government in 2013 after an 18-month insurgency in the eastern DR Congo's North Kivu region.

The first-ever suspect to voluntarily surrender to the ICC, Ntaganda walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali in March 2013 and asked to be sent to The Hague.

Fighting in eastern DRC has left some 60,000 dead since 1999, exacerbated by the wealth of mineral resources in the region, notably gold and minerals used in electronic products.