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Lubanga Trial, Week 1: Prosecutors Stumble out of the Gate

The highly anticipated trial of accused Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga, the first for the International Criminal Court in The Hague, had a troubled start this week.

After two days of forceful opening statements by the prosecution and defense, prosecutors stumbled when their first witness, a former child soldier, said that he had lied.

“What I said earlier, was not what I intended to say,” the young man told the court. He then suggested that a humanitarian aid group had coached him on what to say.

“I’m not asking you what the (aid group) told you,” said Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. “Did you attend the training camp?”

“No,” the witness said.

Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford then asked the witness if his original story was true or false.

“It’s not true,” the witness said, and was ruled unfit to continue.

This drew complaints from the defense, who argued that the young man should be allowed to testify, since his reversal could benefit to Lubanga.

The chaotic start to the trial followed numerous and lengthy delays that have plagued the trial.

Lubanga is being tried on charges of conscripting and using child soldiers to fight in his militia during 2002 and 2003 in the troubled Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The trial was due to start in June 2008, but was halted over problems with evidence disclosure. Lubanga has been held in The Hague since his arrest in 2006.

Lubanga pled not guilty to the charges in connection with the militia he allegedly controlled, known as the Patriotic Front for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC). The militia was the military arm of the Lubanga’s political movement, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).

In opening remarks, ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said his team would prove that Lubanga “committed some of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole: crimes against children.”

The children in Lubanga’s ethnic Hema-affiliated militia were instructed and forced on threat of death to rape and kill civilians from the Lendu ethnic group, the prosecutor said.

Moreno-Ocampo also addressed the issue of young girl soldiers, who were raped and forced into sexual slavery by the militia. The girls were also used as fighters and domestic servants in Lubanga’s military camps, the prosecutor said.

The victims’ representatives also focused on sexual violence in their opening statements, despite the fact that Lubanga does not face any such charges. This drew sharp criticism from Lubanga’s lawyers.

The defense team accused the prosecution of using Lubanga as a scapegoat for others who bore the “highest responsibility” for the crimes and who should be punished.

“Thomas Lubanga is charged in the place of those who should have been prosecuted,” said Jean-Marie Biju-Duval, one of Lubanga’s lawyers.

Specifically, that included the former chief-of-staff of Lubanga’s militia, Floribert Kisembo, who currently is an officer in the Congolese army, Biju-Duval said.

Government leaders in Rwanda and Uganda, who provided weapons and support to various militia groups in the DRC, were also culpable, Biju-Duval added.

“The ICC cannot prosecute all suspects, but should resist the temptation to convict Lubanga as a proxy for those who are absent,” he said.

Back in Bunia, the capital of the DRC’s Ituri region, a hostile crowd gathered at a screening of the trial’s first day on Monday, an event organized by the ICC.

A large screen was set up in a room in the town center, but the situation deteriorated when more than 400 largely ethnic Hema residents and supporters of Lubanga, tried to pack into a space intended for only 100.

Those left outside became angry, hurling insults. The mood inside was not much better as the crowd reproached the court and the prosecutor. The screening was eventually suspended.

Although the prosecution’s first witness was removed, the incident again raised the issue of witness protection. Bensouda told that court that the second witness, who is related to the first, may have been intimidated.

This prompted Judge Fulford to ask for a report from the prosecution and the Victims and Witnesses Unit on the risks faced by ICC witnesses who might return to the DRC, including possible criminal prosecution by local authorities.

On Friday, however, the prosecution was back on track, providing the court with a former soldier in Lubanga’s militia who said he helped train child soldiers and saw them killed in battles.

The testimony will continue on Monday.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Additional reporting by Richard Pituwa in Bunia.