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Feb 27, 11:08 AM EST

International court judges uphold acquittal of Congolese man


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THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- International Criminal Court judges on Friday upheld the acquittal of a Congolese man who was cleared at trial of leading a deadly militia attack in eastern Congo.

Mathieu Ngudjolo was acquitted in December 2012 of commanding fighters who destroyed the village of Bogoro in eastern Congo in 2003, raping and hacking to death some 200 people including children.

The 2012 judgment was only the second verdict in the court's history and the first time it had cleared a suspect. Ngudjolo was acquitted of crimes including murder, rape and sexual slavery.

A five-judge panel rejected prosecutors' three grounds of appeal against the verdict in a 3-2 majority ruling.

The two dissenting judges, Ekaterina Trendafilova and Cuno Tarfusser, said that the appeals chamber should have ordered a retrial because of errors by the trial panel, saying that "vital evidence was disregarded," according to a summary read out by presiding judge Sanji Monageng.

Prosecutors had alleged errors by trial judges in how they assessed evidence. Prosecutors also claimed they had been denied a fair trial because judges did not let them cross examine Ngudjolo and two other key witnesses about allegations he interfered with witnesses.

However Monageng said the errors "did not materially affect the outcome of the acquittal decision."

The court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement the ruling, "does not negate the fact that crimes were committed in Bogoro or the suffering of the victims." She said her office "spared no effort in the prosecution of the case and exhausted all judicial remedies available to it."

Human Rights Watch said that the appeals decision underscored the prosecutors' weak case.

"The prosecutor should continue improving investigations for all pending ICC cases," said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, international justice advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch. "Specifically in eastern Congo, the prosecutor should follow up on evidence from the Ngudjolo case that senior officials in Kinshasa and neighboring countries supported local abusive armed groups."

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