Mr Bosco Ntaganda during his initial appearance before the International Criminal Court on 26 March 2013 © ICC-CPI

The ICC’s First Hunger-Striking Defendant Poses a Courtroom Conundrum

At the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, Bosco Ntaganda, who is on trial for his role in war crimes committed in the Ituri district of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 2002 and 2003, just spent two weeks on hunger strike. He said he was protesting the conditions under which he is being held, and has refused to appear in court. In a written statement seen by the AFP and presented to the court by his lawyer in his absence, he had said “I have no hope of seeing my wife and children in normal conditions… that is why I am ready to die.”

Not quite ready enough, however, as he began eating again Tuesday night, according to his lawyer.

Still, this was an unprecedented conundrum for the ICC judges as Ntaganda is the first ICC defendant to go on hunger strike. How they handled it in this high profile offered some key insights into how the ICC could, in the future, deal with uncooperative defendants.  

A strategy of derailment?

Ntaganda faces 13 counts of war crimes and 5 counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, sexual slavery, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, pillaging, and persecution, according to Human Rights Watch. The ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in 2006, but the DRC government promised him amnesty and a post in the army as part of a peace deal in 2009. Ntaganda defected from the army in 2012 as part of a mutiny, and eventually surrendered at the American Embassy in Kigali where he asked to be transferred to the ICC.

It would seem that the ICC proceedings are not going as smoothly for him as he might have expected. According to the AFP, Ntaganda’s lawyer, Stéphane Bourgon, said last week that Ntaganda had told him that he didn’t feel well enough to attend court proceedings — “And if they come and get me, I will refuse to go.” He also told his lawyers to stop acting on his behalf.

What Ntaganda claimed to be protesting was a set of visitation restrictions that the court refused to lift, which he said would prevent him from being able to see his wife and children. However, ICC Judge Robert Fremr assured that the restrictions do not prohibit his family from visiting him. They were enacted in 2014 due to concerns that he was trying to influence and intimidate witnesses.

Bourgon said that a psychiatric evaluation concluded that “he is mentally competent to oversee the implications of his decisions,” as reported by the AFP; and the Prosecution has argued that this sudden depression is just a manipulative strategy to delay the court’s proceedings.

The judges ordered the case to continue without Ntaganda, but Bourgon wondered how this would play out: “Should we force Mr. Ntaganda out of his chair and sit him in the video room? … What happens after this witness? And what happens next week when Mr. Ntaganda falls unconscious? What will happen then? We will continue with the trial with Mr. Ntaganda unconscious on his bed?” (AFP)

Now that Ntaganda has started eating again, the ICC is off the hook; but it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the ICC to see this experience as a reality check and to perhaps think about potential policies or guidelines for dealing with such a situation should it ever arise again.

As quoted by the AFP, Bourgon said “If everything goes well, his wife will be in The Hague from Thursday and will be able to see Mr. Ntaganda in an almost private setting, which meet (his) minimum expectations.”