Prosecutors in the trial of Thomas Lubanga suffered a setback today when their first witness abruptly changed his story, saying he lied and had been coached on what to say in court.
The unnamed witness initially told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that militia men reportedly commanded by Lubanga had kidnapped him on his way home from school and taken him to a training camp for child soldiers.
But when ICC Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked the witness if he went to a training camp, he hesitated.
“I find it difficult to answer because I gave an oath [in court],” the witness said.
The young man was shielded from the public gallery with face and voice distortion, but was visible to those present in the courtroom, including Lubanga.
Following the young man’s statement, the trial recessed so he could speak with a lawyer representing victims in the case. When it resumed, Bensouda again asked the young man about the training camp.
“What I said earlier, was not what I intended to say,” he told the court. The witness 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,” Bensouda said. “Did you attend the training camp?”
“No,” the witness said.
Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford then asked the witness if his story was true or false.
“It’s not true,” the witness said.
The reversal of the young man’s story hampers ICC prosecutors hoping to establish that Lubanga conscripted, trained, and used young boys to fight in the Ituri region of Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002 and 2003. Other former child soldiers are expected to testify, however.
After another recess, Bensouda told the court she was worried about the witness’s safety, especially if he returned to the Ituri region. Fear for his safety had caused the witness to change his testimony, she said.
Judge Fulford acknowledged that the witness altered his account after he was counseled on court procedures and self-incrimination.
While the witness would not be prosecuted for offenses committed as a child soldier, Fulford questioned whether “criminal or quasi-criminal charges” awaited the witness on his return to the DRC.
ICC judges will meet with the prosecution, defense, and victims’ lawyers in closed session Thursday morning, said ICC spokeswoman Laurence Blairon, and will decide what to do next with the witness.