International court begins with Congo trial

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The Independent Online

A Congolese warlord pleaded not guilty to recruiting child soldiers and sending them to fight and die in ethnic battles as the International Criminal Court began its historic first trial today.

The trial against Thomas Lubanga began six years after the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal started work and six months later than planned after being derailed by fierce debate over confidential evidence.

Wearing a dark suit and red tie, Lubanga showed no emotion as his French lawyer, Catherine Mabille, said he pleaded not guilty to using children under age 15 as soldiers in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots political party in 2002-03.

Lubanga's militia "recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to kill, pillage and rape. The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga's crimes," prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told a three-judge panel in his opening statement. "They cannot forget what they suffered, what they saw, what they did."

Lubanga claims he was a patriot fighting to prevent rebels and foreign fighters from plundering the vast mineral wealth of Congo's eastern Ituri region.

The United Nations estimates that up to 250,000 child soldiers are still fighting in more than a dozen countries around the world. Activists say Lubanga's trial will send a message to the armies in Congo and elsewhere that recruiting them is a war crime.

"This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.

Lubanga, 48, was arrested by Congolese authorities in 2005 and flown to The Hague a year later. He is one of only four suspects in the court's custody — all of them Congolese.

Originally slated to begin last June, the trial was held up by a dispute between judges and prosecutors over confidential evidence.

The United Nations and nongovernment groups provided more than 200 pieces of evidence — some of which prosecutors said might help Lubanga clear his name — on condition they not be shown to defense lawyers or even to the judges in the case.

That raised fears Lubanga might be unable to get a fair trial. It took months of wrangling before judges and Lubanga's lawyers were granted access to the evidence.

The trial is the first international prosecution to feature the participation of victims. A total of 93 victims are being represented by eight lawyers and can apply for reparations.

While many international war crimes cases can drag on for years, prosecutors who plan to call 34 witnesses hope to wrap up their case against Lubanga in a few months.

Several of the witnesses will be former child soldiers who will recount the horror of their military service, Moreno-Ocampo said.

Former child soldiers often are rejected by their communities when they try to return home, experts say.

"They will come to confront past crimes and present prejudices, in particular within their communities," he said. "It takes courage."