By Thomas Escritt
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court passes judgment on alleged Congo warlord Germain Katanga on Friday in a key test of the prosecutors' ability to bring solid cases and win convictions at the Hague-based tribunal.
The court, launched in 2002 to try crimes against humanity, has handed down only two verdicts so far - a conviction and an acquittal -- while at least five cases have collapsed for lack of sufficient evidence before or during trial proceedings.
Apart from accusations of slow justice, the court has also suffered from criticism that it has so far only brought charges against Africans while atrocities in conflicts in the politically-charged Middle East go unpunished.
Friday's case stems from a bloody conflict in the resource-rich Ituri region of northeast Congo in the early 2000s.
Katanga was charged with 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for an attack on a village there called Bogoro by a militia group he allegedly commanded, the Patriotic Resistance Force. He could face a life sentence if convicted.
He was charged alongside Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, another militia leader who was acquitted for lack of evidence last year.
Judges separated Katanga's case before the verdict and gave prosecutors another year to gather more evidence that he had contributed to the crimes, not that he was central to them as originally charged.
"If they don't clear this lower bar, it will put a question mark over the organization of the trial," said Carsten Stahn, a law professor at Leiden University. "Even if they do end up with a conviction, it will remain a fragile basis for conviction."
QUESTIONS ABOUT EVIDENCE
The court, which has a budget of some 100 million euros, is now preparing to try Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, accused of orchestrating clashes after 2007 elections in which 1,200 died.
Kenyatta denies the charges but will cooperate even as his government lobbies hard to have his trial dropped or postponed.
Although more than 100 nations have recognized the court's jurisdiction, brutal conflicts such as the one in Syria remain beyond its reach because Damascus didn't join the court before it descended into a civil war that has killed more than 140,000 and displaced millions more.
Some 200 people were killed in the attack on Bogoro in February 2003, when ethnic Lendu and Ngiti fighters destroyed the homes of the village's mainly Hema inhabitants.
Some testimony prosecutors used in this latest trial was criticized as faulty by the judges when it was presented in the case against Ngudjolo that ended in acquittal last year. So much will depend on prosecutors' reinvestigations over the past year.
In last year's verdict, judges criticized prosecutors for such lapses as failing to visit the site of the attack and not checking what witnesses would have been able to see from the vantage points that they claimed to have had.
Fatou Bensouda, appointed chief prosecutor two years ago, has since boosted the court's investigative teams and sought funds for forensic experts and other skilled investigators.
If the judges convict Katanga, it would lend badly needed support to her new approach.
"An acquittal would be a blow, but there's been a change in leadership and they've publicly acknowledged they need to take another look at their investigative strategies," said Jennifer Easterday of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Tom Heneghan)