International Criminal Court judges handed Congolese rebel chief Bosco “Terminator” Ntaganda a 30-year jail term for war crimes on Thursday, the highest ever sentence passed down by the tribunal in The Hague.
Ntaganda was convicted in July of crimes including murder, persecution and sexual slavery for a series of massacres of civilians in Democratic Republic of Congo’s volatile, mineral-rich Ituri region in 2002 and 2003.
Condemning Rwandan-born Ntaganda’s “multiplicity of crimes”, judge Robert Flemr told him “the overall sentence imposed on you shall therefore be 30 years of imprisonment.”
“Murder was committed on a large scale,” Flemr said as he passed sentence, saying they had taken the “particular cruelty” of some of Ntaganda’s crimes into account.
The judges gave him the maximum possible sentence allowed by the ICC in terms of the number of years, but said his crimes did not justify a full-life prison term which is reserved for the gravest offences.
Ntaganda, dressed in a blue suit and shirt and wearing a red tie, stood motionless in the high-security courtroom as he listened through headphones while the judgement was read out.
An ICC spokesman confirmed it was the heaviest ever penalty handed down by the court, which was set up in 2002 to try the world’s worst crimes.
Judges said 46-year-old Ntaganda was the ruthless driver of ethnic Tutsi revolts amid the wars that convulsed the DRC after the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda.
They said Ntaganda was a “key leader” of the Union of Congolese Patriots rebel group and its military wing, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC).
Most of the charges related to two bloody operations by Ntaganda’s soldiers against civilians in rival villages in 2002 and 2003. The court heard fearful villagers dubbed him “Terminator” after the Arnold Schwarzenegger film about a merciless robotic killer.
In total he was convicted on 13 counts of war crimes and five of crimes against humanity, becoming the first to be convicted by the ICC of sexual enslavement.
He was also the first-ever suspect to voluntarily surrender to the ICC, having walked into the US embassy in the Rwandan capital Kigali in 2013 and asked to be sent to the court in the Netherlands.
The ICC judges heard separately from victims and witnesses in September to help them decide on the sentence.
Fighters loyal to him carried out atrocities such as a massacre in a banana field behind a village in which at least 49 people including children and babies were disembowelled or had their heads smashed in.
Ntaganda was also responsible for the rape and sexual slavery of underage girls, and of recruiting troops under the age of 15.
More than 60 000 people have been killed since the violence erupted in Ituri region in 1999 according to rights groups, as militias battle each other for control of scarce mineral resources.
Ntaganda — known for his pencil moustache and a penchant for fine dining — told judges during his trial that he was “soldier not a criminal” and that the “Terminator” nickname did not apply to him.
After the Ituri conflict, Ntaganda was integrated into the Congolese army and was a general from 2007 to 2012, but then became a founding member of the M23 rebel group in a new uprising against the government.
Prosecutors said his decision to hand himself in to the ICC that year was based on self-preservation as he was in danger because of a feud in the group.
Ntaganda is one of five Congolese warlords to have been brought before the ICC, which was set up in 2002 as an independent international body to prosecute those accused of the world’s worst crimes.
Ntaganda’s former FPLC commander Thomas Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years in jail in 2012.
But the ICC has suffered a string of setbacks over recent years with some of its most high-profile suspects walking free, including Ivorian former leader Laurent Gbagbo earlier this year.
It has also been criticised for mainly trying African suspects so far.
© Agence France-Presse