A CONGOLESE militia leader has been acquitted by the International Criminal Court, a setback that experts warned sent a ''worrying signal'' about the court's ability to prosecute war criminals.
Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui was accused of leading fighters who destroyed a village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2003, hacking to death and raping 200 people including women and children.
But the court's prosecutors failed to link Mr Ngudjolo to the atrocities, judges found. Their verdict was only the second in the court's history and leaves it with one conviction and one acquittal. Human rights groups said the victims had been denied justice.
The court in The Hague heard reports of victims being burned alive, babies smashed against walls and women raped in Bogoro in the mineral-rich Ituri province.
Judges said the testimony of three key prosecution witnesses was unreliable and could not prove definitively that Mr Ngudjolo led the attack. Judge Bruno Cotte of France said the decision was unanimous, and witness testimony had been ''too contradictory and too hazy''.
But he emphasised the acquittal did not mean the court found no crimes took place, ''nor does it question what the people of this community have suffered on that day … If an allegation has not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt … this does not necessarily mean that the alleged fact did not occur''.
Mr Ngudjolo, who had claimed he only learned of the attack days later, showed no emotion as the verdict was handed down.
An expert in international law at the Open Society Justice Initiative Eric Witte said the judgment ''will send a worrying signal about the quality of ICC prosecutions''.
The chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, might need to rethink the way her office built its cases, he said. ''A pattern of prosecution failures could undermine support for the court as a whole.''
Rights organisations called on the court to explain Tuesday's acquittal to survivors in Bogoro.
''The acquittal of Ngudjolo leaves the victims of Bogoro and other massacres by his forces without justice for their suffering,'' Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said.
The judges ordered Mr Ngudjolo's release, but Ms Bensouda said she would appeal and asked for him to be kept in custody.
Judges are still considering the evidence against another militia leader Germain Katanga, who stood trial with Mr Ngudjolo, and are expected to deliver verdicts next year.
The ICC has been criticised as slow and cumbersome and for focusing exclusively on Africa. Its only other verdict, delivered this year, convicted another Congolese rebel leader, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, of using child soldiers in battles in Ituri. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
Guardian News & Media