The first attempt to prosecute a warlord for using child soldiers got under way yesterday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague when judges heard evidence against the Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.
Mr Lubanga Dyilo, 45, is accused of forcing more than 30,000 children, some as young as 10, to fight for his Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) during an 18-month period in a tribal war that lasted from 1999 to 2003 in Ituri in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said: "This case is a landmark in the fight against impunity for crimes affecting children in the DRC and worldwide."
The start of the militiaman's confirmation hearing - a 12-day process after which judges will decide whether to proceed to trial - is an important step for the International Criminal Court (ICC), the first permanent home for international human rights justice. Operational since 2002, the ICC faces strong opposition from the US, which does not want its citizens to be liable for trial abroad.
The ICC is also at the centre of a political row over four arrest warrants issued for the leaders of the Ugandan rebel Lord's Resistance Army. As a condition of resuming peace talks with the Ugandan government, the LRA is calling for the warrants to be cancelled.
Dressed in a corn blue African trouser-suit, Mr Lubanga Dyiolo spoke only to confirm his name and to say that "prison is not a happy place''.
At the pine-panelled high-security court, Ekkehard Withoppf, for the prosecution, said: "Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, acting with others and always in a prominent role, conscripted and enlisted children under the age of 15. He chose to recruit girls and boys because they would easily act in a vengeful manner and they would not question orders."
Mr Withoppf said the prosecution would call four witnesses, including former child combatants and parents. He said that during the Hema-dominated UPC's war against its tribal foes in the Lendu-led Front Nationaliste et Integrationiste (FNI), Mr Lubanga Dyilo's forces recruited thousands of children who were trained at five camps. "They learnt to march, crawl, salute, take up position and to fight with sticks. They were taught warrior songs that insulted the Lendus. Weaklings were executed."
Jean Flamme, for the defence, concentrated on putting complaints to Judge Claude Jorda about the seating plan in the ICC courtroom and the presence of cameras when he visits his client in jail. But at a press conference on Wednesday in The Hague Mr Flamme gave a foretaste of his line of defence.
"Children have been recruited by all sides in the Congo since the 1960s," he said, suggesting that the practice was unexceptional. He added that Mr Lubanga Dyilo - whose UPC party is recognised in the DRC - should be considered a politician, not a militiaman.
While welcoming the hearing and likely trial, human rights observers said yesterday they were disappointed that Mr Lubanga Dyilo was being tried only for recruiting child soldiers, not for the war crimes they allegedly committed under his orders. "We have documented witness statements of rape, mutilations and murder against hundreds of people. The United Nations estimates that 60,000 people have been killed in Ituri province since 1999," said Geraldine Mattioli of Human Rights Watch.