Fri, Jul 18, 2003 - Page 7 News List

International court to probe abuses in the eastern Congo


The newly founded International Criminal Court is likely to open its first case by investigating the leaders most responsible for flagrant abuses against civilians in the current war in the eastern Congo, the court's chief prosecutor announced Wednesday.

The official, Louis Moreno Ocampo, who took office one month ago, said he had received detailed information about extensive human rights violations in the region. This includes the massacres of unarmed civilians, "some solely on the basis of their ethnicity," he said, as well as mass rape, torture, kidnappings, mutilations and ritual cannibalism.

The UN Security Council, which has sent 8,000 peacekeepers to the region, has corroborated many of the accusations in a recent report, he said.

Although the five-year-old war has cost an estimated 3 million lives through violence, starvation and disease, the prosecutor will specifically focus on the region of Ituri in the eastern Congo, where some 5,000 civilians were killed between July last year and early this year. While this represents only a fraction of the reported atrocities, this prosecutor can act only in incidents after July 1, last year when the court's jurisdiction began.

"We selected the situation in the Ituri region as the first case because it's urgent, it's of great gravity, it is under our jurisdiction and the state itself is not certain to act," he said at a news conference. "We may be able to prevent more killing and we will try not to interfere with the peace process."

Moreno Ocampo also made it clear on Wednesday that he intends to pursue more than just military or political leaders charged with atrocities. The veteran Argentine prosecutor, who has specialized in business corruption, said he would also investigate the "criminal business" of the Congo war -- money-laundering, gold smuggling and the secret arms trade. He said he had received reports that organized crime groups from Eastern Europe and "some African, European and Middle Eastern companies" could be linked to the atrocities. Doing away with the illicit business of war is vital, he said, because unless it is stopped, atrocities will continue, even if the killers are arrested and prosecuted.

"This is a message," he said. "We are now here and will investigate and punish crimes. And companies doing illegal business and financing crimes must now know we will follow them."

Even if the prosecutor acts fast, no case is likely to come to trial for at least another year. While the court has sworn in its 18 judges, it is still building up its staff, currently at 80, and construction for a courtroom at the modern headquarters in The Hague has only just begun. The prosecutor is also still searching for his main deputy and chief investigators.

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