The prosecution’s case in the trial of accused Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga drew to a close this week with little of the fanfare that had marked its highly anticipated opening five months ago, on January 26.
The final day of proceedings, on July 14, was conducted mostly in closed session as a protected witness finished his testimony.
Lubanga is the first person to stand trial at the International Criminal Court, ICC. He is charged with recruiting, conscripting, and using child soldiers, defined as fighters under the age of 15, in the ethnic conflicts that raged throughout the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, between 2002 and 2003.
On the trial’s opening day, Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo declared to a crowded public gallery that Lubanga “committed some of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole: crimes against children”.
Ocampo also devoted part of his statement to the plight of young girl soldiers, who he said suffered repeated rape in Lubanga’s militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots, UPC.
“You will hear that as soon as the girls’ breasts started to grow, Lubanga’s commanders could select them as their forced ‘wives’ and transform them into their sexual slaves,” Ocampo said.
Lubanga, however, is not charged with rape or crimes relating to sexual violence. This became increasingly significant during the trial, as witness after witness testified that young girl soldiers were repeatedly raped by commanders. Witnesses claimed that these girls often became pregnant and some underwent crude abortions as a result.
The testimony about rape was so frequent that, on May 22, lawyers for 99 victims participating in the trial asked judges to add in charges of sexual slavery and cruel and unusual treatment to Lubanga’s indictment.
As IWPR reported on June 25, the new charges could only be based on existing witness testimony and evidence, since victims’ lawyers contend that the existing facts indicate additional crimes.
Whether or not new charges will be added is ultimately in the hands of the judges, and a hearing on the matter is likely to take place later this summer.
Most of the witnesses who testified were former child soldiers themselves, and the majority of them received protective measures – such as digital face and voice distortion – to conceal their identities.
The complicated issues surrounding witness protection became obvious as soon as the very first witness took the stand on January 28. While the witness – who became known as Dieumerci – originally said he was kidnapped on this way home from school by Lubanga’s soldiers, he hesitated when deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda asked if he went to a UPC training camp.
“I find it difficult to answer because I gave an oath [in court],” he said, later suggesting that a humanitarian group had coached him on what to say.
Dieumerci eventually returned to testify on February 10. Lubanga was brought into court only after the witness was seated and concealed from his view.
This measure was subsequently used with several other witnesses who did not wish to be in Lubanga’s direct view.
Dieumerci was not the only witness to change his story once he took the stand. On June 16, a witness known simply by the number 15, told the court that he had provided a false name and statement to prosecutors.
Presiding judge Adrian Fulford said that a fresh statement should be obtained from the witness “setting out what he says is the truth”. The statement was taken in the presence of defence lawyers, but witness 15 did not return to testify before the prosecution rested. It is unclear whether he will return to court when the defence commences its case in October.
A total of 30 witnesses appeared during the prosecution’s case, including two witnesses called by judges. Twenty-five of these witnesses were granted protective measures.
The defence will begin sometime in October, but a precise date has not been set.