U.S. Markets closed

Congolese rebel leader on 12th day of hunger strike

Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda insisted during his trial that he never attacked civilians (AFP Photo/MICHAEL KOOREN)

The Hague (AFP) - Congolese former rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda was Monday on the 12th day of an unprecedented hunger strike in his detention cell in The Netherlands, refusing to attend his war crimes trial.

The once feared rebel leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo has not appeared in the courtroom at the International Criminal Court in The Hague since September 7.

He is the first defendant before the tribunal -- set up in 2002 to try the world's worst crimes -- to ever go on hunger strike and his protest is vexing judges who have ordered his trial must go on in his absence.

"How long can this situation last? Is it the kind of justice we want before the International Criminal Court?" said his lawyer, Stephane Bourgon, in a statement sent early Monday.

"We can't ignore the absence of the accused whose current state of health is rapidly deteriorating."

Ntaganda, who has been held in the ICC's detention unit in the seaside suburb of Scheveningen since he surrendered in 2013, has also told his lawyers to stop acting for him.

Once dubbed The Terminator, Ntaganda has denied 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity arising out of savage ethnic attacks carried out in the DR Congo by his rebel Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) in 2002-2003.

With Ntaganda again absent from the courtroom, Judge Robert Fremr said the detention centre's medical officer had reported early Monday that Ntaganda "shows fatigue, but no alarming physical or mental symptoms."

The medical officer had concluded Ntaganda was fit to be transferred to the courtroom to attend in his trial.

- 'Disruptive' actions -

Fremr again denounced Ntaganda's actions as "disruptive", calling them "self-induced" and adding "the chamber sees no reasonable alternative but to continue the proceedings."

Ntaganda is protesting the judges' refusal to ease restrictions on his visitors -- imposed due to fears about witness tampering.

In a rambling statement read to the court last week, he said he had lost hope of ever seeing his wife and children again without the presence of court and security officials.

The standoff has left the court in a quandary, although ICC officials told AFP they would not force feed him.

"The court has an internal protocol that is being applied. Mr Ntaganda is being seen regularly by medical professionals and will not be force fed," the ICC said.

Ntaganda's trial opened in September 2015 after he walked into the US embassy in Kigali in 2013.

The eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has been mired for two decades in ethnically-charged wars, as rebels battle for control of its rich mineral resources.

Prosecutors say Ntaganda played a central role in the Ituri conflict in the far northeast which rights groups believe alone has left some 60,000 dead since 1999.