An Amsterdam court has ruled that three witnesses from the Democratic Republic of Congo appearing at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague must be given the right to apply for refugee status in the Netherlands. A fourth witness case is still pending.
This contravenes an earlier decision made by the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service (IND), which refused to follow the advice of the ICC.
Fear for their lives
The international court wanted to grant asylum to the witnesses after their testimony in two cases against former militia leaders in which they accused Congolese President Joseph Kabila of being responsible for an attack which killed UN peacekeepers in February 2003.
Lawyers for the witnesses, Göran Sluiter and Flip Schüller, say they have given such damning evidence about human rights violations by Preside Kabila that they fear for their lives if they return to the DRC. This also holds for a fourth witness who has yet to testify in the cases of the ex-militia leaders, Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga.
Imprisoned since 2005
The four witnesses were sentenced to jail in the DRC for 60 days back in 2005, but have remained imprisoned ever since. Defence lawyers in the ICC trial against Katanga requested they be brought to the Netherlands to give evidence in 2011. The DRC agreed, but on condition the witnesses be returned to the DRC.
But because their testimony incriminated the Congolese president, they face persecution and possible execution. Following the ICC’s appeal to protect them, the witnesses applied for asylum in May 2011.
Dutch Immigration bent the rules
The lawyers representing the four say Dutch immigration deliberately bent or circumvented the rules upon application.
Kinshasa, meanwhile, is furious by developments in the case – as the ICC has basically reneged on its agreement with the DRC - and has said it will block the transfer of any more witnesses to The Hague unless those currently on loan to the court are sent back.
Mr Sluiter said he is pleased with today’s decision allowing the four to apply for asylum, but warns the court’s ruling could be overturned if the Dutch government opts to appeal. The lawyer is seeking the release of the four men “who are being held unfairly while awaiting either deportation or an asylum procedure”.
The ICC witnesses appear to be caught in a legal wrangle, explains Mr Sluiter. “The ICC, Dutch authorities
and DRC point to one another when it comes to taking responsibility about the detention of my clients. Their detention could continue for years without any legal grounds. This is totally unacceptable.”
In elections this month in the DRC, official results gave President Kabila 49 percent of the vote, but opposition parties said the polls were rigged and took the matter to the Supreme Court, which ratified the official results.
The US said the elections were "seriously flawed". The EU also questioned the credibility of the outcome, but the African Union said the polls were a success.
DRC still a troubled land
The DRC is still marred by unrest in the troubled east of the country. Although open conflict with homegrown Tutsi-led rebels has ended, fighting has continued in the east against Rwandan Hutu rebels.
Other rebels, including former pro-government Mai Mai militia, Lord's Resistance Army and Islamic ADF-NALU fighters, also still roam.
Mass rapes and other abuses are an ever-present threat for locals in the east, raising doubts over the effectiveness of the Congolese army and the 17,000-strong UN peace force.
In a 2011 report on Congo, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said some 1.7 million people remained displaced, including some 1.25 million in North and South Kivu. "The situation in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo remains fragile," Mr Ban said.
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