By Benjamin Duerr
The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court saw Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui as a militia leader who commanded a massacre in eastern Congo. Ngudjolo described himself as a low-ranking nurse. In 2012, he became the first person to be acquitted by the International Criminal Court. Who is he really?
Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui says he became a nurse because he wanted to help other people. For the ICC prosecutors, however, he was responsible for the death of at least 200 villagers in eastern Congo.
In a trial before the ICC that took more than five years, perceptions transcended between the image of a ruthless military commander and that of a responsible man carrying for his community. His personality remained dubious. While he attended official meetings wearing a uniform, he continued to claim that he was nothing more than a nurse.
Based on evidence and witness testimonies, the judges in The Hague had to rule whether he was indeed the military commander responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes he was charged with. In 2012, they said there is not enough evidence to support this claim. When his acquittal was confirmed in February 2015, he applied for asylum in the Netherlands. Several Dutch and higher European courts rejected his asylum request, and he is expected to be expelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Ngudjolo is a small man – 1,60m tall – with dark eyes and a deep, friendly sounding voice. His watch dangles around his left wrist. On his breast pocket, he has pinned a small golden cross—an item he wore during the trial and when the verdict was handed down. “I’m Christian, and my belief is very important to me,” Ngudjolo explains. During his ICC trial, he prayed and attended mass in prison, he recalls.
Ngudjolo was born in October 1970 into a family of the Lendu ethnicity. His brother was a dignitary in the community and other family members held influential positions as well. During the trial, a witness said Ngudjolo was “respected but also feared.” His last name, Chui, a Swahili term, translates as leopard and is a symbol of power, he says.
Unlike many others in the region, Ngudjolo went to secondary school, which he left after the third year. He became a soldier in the army of Congo’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, but then he left and joined the Red Cross, where he was trained as a first aid nurse. While it is uncontested that he is an experienced medical practitioner, the question at trial was whether he carried out other functions as well.
The ICC prosecutors argued that Ngudjolo was the commander-in-chief of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) combatants in his home community of Bedu-Ezekere. In February 2003, the Lendu group carried out an attack on the village of Bogoro, which left 200 people dead. Ngudjolo was charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes for allegedly commanding the attack.
Ngudjolo, however, maintains he did not occupy a military position. He explained that, since he was the only trained nurse in the region, he was providing first aid courses to other health workers and he even set up a health centre in Kambutso. When the attack on Bogoro village took place, he was at this particular health centre where he was helping a woman to give birth, he recalls.
Witnesses confirmed he was working in Kambutso at the time. It seemed to confirm the image of a nurse helping others. However, soon after the attack on Bogoro, in March 2003, he took part in all of the FNI’s major events, and he was promoted to colonel. He explained that this meant nothing but was only due to a mixture of chance and careerist opportunism.
After three years of hearings, the judges had to rule whether Ngudjolo was the militia leader or the nurse. They finally concluded Ngudjolo was only „a man of some standing“ within the community, mainly because of his family, acquaintances and education. The witnesses called by the prosecution based their testimony on hear-say only. Therefore, the judges could not find he was the rebel leader the prosecution alleged he was.
His acquittal was confirmed in February 2015, but he did not get a residence permit for a European country. The Netherlands, which is the host country of the ICC, deported him to the DRC yesterday. Since he is still member of the Congolese army, he could be prosecuted for desertion, which can be punished with the death penalty.
His family still leaves in Congo. Ngudjolo has seven children between 7 and 18 years of age. The youngest was born after he was captured and transferred to The Hague. He says he misses them. But he would have rather lived in security in Europe than returning to his family and risking his life.