A defense witness today told court that the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) – the group Thomas Lubanga is alleged to have led – did not conscript any children. Instead, children who had no parents, and those who adored soldiers that extorted money from civilians, voluntarily joined the group.
Claude Nyéki Django, the 20-year-old defense witness who was continuing his testimony from yesterday, also said that UPC recruits who did not cope with the conditions in training camps were free to quit the group and return to their homes.
Prosecutor Nicole Samson asked him how he knew this and he responded that he had been told by those who served in UPC. Django himself did not serve in UPC. But when he first appeared in court yesterday, he said a man known as Dudu took him and other boys to a meeting in the Congolese town of Beni where it was claimed they were former child soldiers.
The testimony by this witness contradicts what most prosecution witnesses told court, namely that trainees at UPC camps were routinely tortured, and that those who attempted to leave the militia group could be killed. Several prosecution witnesses, including those who claimed to have been child soldiers, testified that they were forced to join UPC.
Lubanga faces the war crimes of enlisting, conscripting and using child soldiers in inter-ethnic fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during 2002 and 2003. He has denied the charges, and his defense team has declared that it will prove to court that none of the prosecution witnesses who claimed to have been former child soldiers actually were.
In court today, Django dismissed claims that UPC conscripted children, arguing that the children in UPC were mainly former street children who enlisted although there were also some who abandoned school to join the group when they saw soldiers of their age extorting money from civilians.
“People were not forced to become child soldiers. They were street children who in view of the difficulties they were up against saw their peers who were soldiers carrying weapons and as a result went to enlist,” he said. He added: “I can not say it was Thomas [Lubanga] who went through town asking child to become child soldiers. It was the children themselves who wanted of their own volition to become child soldiers.”
Django’s testimony had to be suspended in the afternoon when he broke down in tears as he described how militiamen from the Lendu ethnic group killed his mother while he and his young siblings hid under a bed. He was escorted out of the courtroom.
Judge Adrian Fulford then asked officials from the Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) and psychologists to assess whether Django would be able to continue giving evidence. After a while it was announced that the VWU staff had assessed the witness and found him suitable to continue testifying. The witness had also indicated to them that he was ready to continue giving evidence.
He returned to court and Samson continued the cross-examination.
Samson asked him whether he knew Lubanga, and he answered that he did. She then asked how he knew him, Django replied that during the war, Lubanga had become important because he was the leader of UPC.
“Because of the war Thomas [Lubanga] became someone very important. Previously he would sell beans at the warehouse, as a tradesman. So I came to know him as a salesman.”