A protected witness scheduled to testify this week against accused Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga told judges that he had given a false name and statement to investigators.
The witness was the second for prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) to recant testimony in the Lubanga trial. The first witness ultimately testified, and the second is expected to as well.
“Shortly after [the witness] was called to give evidence, he indicated that he provided the OTP [Office of the Prosecutor] with a false name and that the statement he provided was, in important respects, inaccurate,” said presiding judge Adrian Fulford.
Although the witness, identified by the number 15, made his statement in closed session, Judge Fulford read part of the session transcript aloud in open court, saying he wanted the public to know what had occurred.
“So your statement to the OTP is substantially inaccurate?” Judge Fulford read, quoting himself from the transcript.
“That’s the case,” the witness had responded, according to the transcript. “It’s a false statement.”
Lubanga is charged with recruiting, conscripting, and using child soldiers, defined as fighters under the age of 15, in the ethnic conflicts that raged in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during 2002 and 2003.
Judge Fulford said a new statement would be obtained from witness 15 “setting out what he says is the truth”.
A person from the prosecutor’s office who is not working on the Lubanga case would take the statement outside of the courtroom, Judge Fulford said.
Prosecutor Nicole Samson suggested that the witness’s new statement be recorded for audio and video records. A member of the defence team would also be present, she said, but had agreed not ask any questions.
The court said it could not predict what the witness would say. “We have no idea what [the] result will be,” Judge Fulford said. “But one can envisage a result where the defence might want to call this witness itself.”
Before adjourning for the day, the judge said that witness 15 should be counseled on the issue of self-incrimination and given access to a lawyer.
“Advice given to the witness…should include a warning against giving false testimony,” he added.
The first incidence of recanted testimony in the Lubanga trial was on January 28, just two days after the trial began, when the prosecution’s leading witness told Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda that he had lied during his testimony and had been coached on what to say.
That witness, a former child soldier known as Dieumerci, eventually returned to the court to speak about his experience as a child soldier in Lubanga’s militia.
His initial claims of fabrication were attributed to fears of seeing Lubanga in court and confusion about whether or not he could be prosecuted in the DRC upon his return there.
“A lot of things went through my mind [that day],” Dieumerci told the court on February 10. “I got angry and I wasn’t able [to testify].”
Prosecutors assured judges this week that Witness 15 would give his second statement as soon as possible. He will likely appear in court again sometime next week.
Meanwhile, an expert witness spent two days this week providing context on the history of DRC.
Roberto Garreton, a Chilean lawyer and former United Nations special envoy on human rights in DRC, told the court that militias in the Ituri region often made contradictory statements about the use of child soldiers.
“[Militia leaders] would say, ‘We don’t use child soldiers, but they are useful because…’ – it was often a contradiction,” he explained.
Children were widely used as soldiers, he said, despite the condemnation of international human rights groups.
When asked by Posecutor Nicole Samson if people in the Ituri region were aware that the international community condemned the use of child soldiers, Garreton said, “The general public did not have access to this information. This war, like any war, was not conducted in a democracy.”
Only educated elites in Kinshasa, he said, would have access to international news and opinions that opposed the use of child soldiers.
On one occasion when he was in DRC during the early 2000s, he saw armed children at the Bunia airport and estimated them to be between nine and 12 years of age, he said.
The violence that plagued the DRC often had severe side-effects, Garreton said, such as with a woman he met whose husband left her after she lost a leg in an attack.
“She was no longer a woman to him,” he said.
Civilians, Garreton explained, were those most affected by the extreme violence that engulfed the country.
“In the utter madness of these wars, the people killed … were women, children and the elderly,” he said. “A bullet lands where it lands.”