THE HAGUE (AFP) - The International Criminal Court acquitted Congolese ex-militia boss Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui of war crimes Tuesday, ruling prosecutors had failed to prove his commanding role in the murder of 200 villagers in a 2003 attack using child soldiers.

“The chamber acquits Mathieu Ngudjolo of all the crimes against him,” presiding Judge Bruno Cotte said.

Dressed in a dark suit and tie and a white shirt, Ngudjolo listened impassively as the judge cleared him on seven war crimes counts and three counts of crimes against humanity, including murder.

The verdict in the case of Ngudjolo, a former leader of the Nationalist Integrationist Front (FNI) militia group in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, is the second for the world’s only permanent war crimes tribunal and its first acquittal. Cotte stressed the acquittal did not mean the court felt no crimes were committed in Bogoro village but rather that witness testimony had been “too contradictory and too hazy”.

Ngudjolo was once one of the most important militia leaders in the northeastern mineral-rich Ituri region. Now 42, he was accused of using child soldiers to fight for him, including to carry out the massacre of 200 people at Bogoro on February 24, 2003. The court heard in May how victims of the massacre were burnt alive, babies smashed against walls and women forced to serve as sex slaves.

Judge Cotte said the acquittal did not “put into question what happened to the people on that day”. But, he said, there was no evidence to show that Ngudjolo was the commander of the militia or that he was “able to impose his authority as a soldier”. The court is to rule from 1600 GMT on whether Ngudjolo should be released pending a possible appeal trial, with prosecutors arguing he poses a flight risk.

Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Programme, said the verdict “really leaves the victims in Bogoro lacking in justice”.

She said the acquittal underscored the urgency for the prosecutor’s office to improve the way it builds cases. “The judges really insisted on the fact that a lot of the witnesses were not credible enough and that they didn’t have enough evidence in front of them,” she said.

The acquittal could send a “worrying signal” about the quality of ICC prosecutions, said Eric Witte, international law expert at philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Justice Initiative.

“More difficult trials with very high stakes for Kenya are scheduled to start in April, and the new prosecutor may need to urgently rethink how her office gathers and presents evidence,” said Witte of chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s upcoming trials over Kenya’s deadly post-election unrest in 2007-2008. “A pattern of prosecution failures could undermine support for the court as a whole,” Witte added.

Ngudjolo’s lawyer, Jean-Pierre Kilenda, hailed the verdict as showing the court “respects the rights of defendants”.