In the coming months, we will now get to hear Thomas Lubanga’s side of the story.
Between January and July last year, we heard horror stories from prosecution witnesses, often former child soldiers, who told of life as a child soldier in the UPC militia camps – the rapes by camp commanders; children abducted on their way to school and forced into the life of soldiers; the physical scars inflicted on them in battle, and the hidden psychological ones which emerged as they returned to their communities, only to be rejected by their families and friends. Prosecutors allege that Mr. Lubanga is responsible for the crime of enlisting, conscripting and using child soldiers in his militia force. Mr. Lubanga has pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Lubanga’s defense will likely not begin for at least another week – but it is worth contemplating: why is his side of the story important?
The first reason is one articulated by his lead defense counsel, Catherine Mabille, in her opening statement last year. Mr. Lubanga has the right, like all accused persons, to be presumed innocent until and unless he is proven guilty. Mr. Lubanga has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him, and will defend that plea in the coming months. But Ms. Mabille lamented on the second day of his trial in January 2009 that she feared that her client had already been declared guilty by the media. “In the press he is already convicted, convicted before being tried. And in the eyes of a vast majority, as soon as there is an arrest warrant and as soon as the charges are confirmed and the matter is committed to trial, the presumption of innocence disappears,” said Ms. Mabille.
Other basic rights accorded to Mr. Lubanga under the Rome Statute — the key document setting out the law and operations governing the ICC — include his right to “raise defences and to present other evidence admissible under this Statute.” Mr. Lubanga’s defense team is expected to call around 30 witnesses to testify on his behalf. Wairangala Wakabi, an independent journalist reporting for this site, wrote earlier this week aout some of the themes which may be expected to emerge in the coming months: “Lubanga’s defense team is expected to dwell on discrediting testimony by prosecution witnesses that Lubanga was the overall in-charge of the political and military affairs of UPC, and that he took part in conscripting and using children under the age of 15 years in inter-ethnic fighting. The age of some of the witnesses who were presented as former child soldiers is also likely to be contested, as are the circumstances under which they became members of the UPC militia.”
In the larger picture, it is important for the ICC’s legitimacy as a fair and independent tribunal that Mr Lubanga be seen to – and does in fact — receive a fair trial. And that includes the opportunity to put forward a spirited and aggressive defense. It also requires the media, judges and other observers – to remember that in the eyes of the law, he remains innocent unless the judges decide otherwise at the end of the trial.
Meanwhile as the trial goes ahead in the ICC’s courtroom, on this website we will be providing commentary from the ground in the DRC throughout the defense case. This will include independent analyses of political and legal issues in the DRC which better place the trial in context.
As of February, this will also include three sets of monthly “voxpops on international justice” thanks to our new partner, Interactive Radio for Justice, that operates radio programming in the DRC and elsewhere in the Great Lakes. People in the DRC will tell us what they think of the Lubanga trial and the ICC, and the audio files (with English translations) will be posted on this site. That way, Congolese voices of those in areas most affected by the crimes with which Mr. Lubanga is charged, can be heard simultaneously with the trial going forward.
We also wish to thank the Institute for War and Peace Reporting-Netherlands for their great work reporting on the site last year during the prosecution case.