THE HAGUE — The International Criminal Court acquitted a Congolese militia leader Tuesday of all charges of commanding fighters who destroyed a village in eastern Congo in 2003, raping and hacking to death some 200 people, including children.
The acquittal of Mathieu Ngudjolo on charges including rape, murder, and pillage was only the second verdict in the court's 10-year history and the first time it had cleared a suspect.
The only other ICC verdict, handed down earlier this year, convicted another Congolese rebel leader, Thomas Lubanga, of using child soldiers in battles in Ituri. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The court has indicted far more senior suspects than Ngudjolo, including President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan and Laurent Gbagbo, former president of the Ivory Coast. Bashir refuses to surrender to the court and Gbagbo is in custody in The Hague awaiting a possible trial.
Tuesday's verdict also cast a shadow over ICC prosecutors' efforts to collect and present evidence of atrocities in complex conflicts thousands of miles from the court's headquarters in The Hague.
Judges said the testimony of three key prosecution witnesses was unreliable and could not prove definitively that Ngudjolo led the rebel attack on the village of Bogoro, but they emphasized that Ngudjolo's acquittal did not mean that no crimes occurred in the village.
Eric Witte, a specialist in international law at the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the judgment ''will send a worrying signal about the quality of ICC prosecutions.''