The recognition of sexual violence as an international crime at the International Criminal Court (ICC) is a major step forward. The Prosecutor v. Germain Katanga case is the first at the ICC to charge a defendant with crimes of sexual violence and represents a crucial milestone for the ICC and for victims of sexual violence. The Katanga verdict, to be delivered on March 7, 2014, will be the third judgment in the ICC’s 12-year history, and its legal significance cannot be overstated.
Germain Katanga, the alleged former commander of the Force de résistance patriotique en Ituri (FRPI), is accused of perpetrating war crimes and crimes against humanity on February 24, 2003 in Bogoro, a village in the northeastern Ituri Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Grave human rights violations were purportedly perpetrated in Bogoro, where 200 civilians were murdered in a matter of hours, women and girls raped and sexually enslaved, and the village pillaged.
After the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Katanga, Congolese authorities surrendered him to the ICC, and he was transferred to The Hague in October 2007. He was charged with seven counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity, including gender-based crimes of sexual slavery and rape. Similarly, Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui – alleged former leader of the Front des nationalistes et intégrationnistes (FNI), another militia accused of committing atrocities in Bogoro – was arrested, transferred to the ICC in February 2008, and charged with the same set of crimes as Katanga. The ICC combined the Katanga and Ngudjolo cases in March 2008 as the two defendants were on trial for the same crimes.
In November 2012, six months after closing arguments, the ICC severed the Katanga and Ngudjolo cases, citing a re-characterization of the facts in the case against Katanga. A month later, the ICC acquitted Ngudjolo of all charges, citing insufficient and unreliable evidence. This poses a significant concern for the upcoming March 7 Katanga verdict as the case against Katanga relies upon the same evidence.
The Ngudjolo acquittal highlights the importance of forensic medical evidence to substantiate the commission of sexual violence crimes. Given the scarcity of forensic medical evidence, the prosecution’s case relied primarily on oral testimony of witnesses and written reports by UN agencies, independent NGOs, and third-party states. The judges noted that one witness’s testimony was “too vague” and found another’s “contradictory.” Sexual violence survivors need medical evidence to bolster their claims, and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is leading efforts to train doctors, police officials, lawyers, and judges on collecting, documenting, and preserving forensic medical evidence for future prosecutions. By enhancing basic evidence collection and documentation, PHR aims to ensure that sexual violence survivors will have the evidence they need to end impunity against their perpetrators and attain justice.
Despite the lack of forensic medical evidence in the Katanga case, it offers important legal contributions to survivors of sexual violence. The inclusion of charges of sexual and gender-based crimes in a case adjudicated by a prominent international legal body validates the harm caused by sexual violence and helps survivors achieve justice by ending impunity for these crimes. The Katanga case has given sexual violence victims the chance to tell their story, be legally represented, and qualify for reparations.
Even if the March 7 judgment does not render a guilty verdict for Katanga, the case already has moved the jurisprudence of sexual and gender-based crimes forward. Both the Katanga and Ngudjolo cases illustrate how the collection, documentation, and preservation of forensic medical evidence are essential to ensuring that future prosecutions of international crimes result in guilty verdicts and justice for survivors.