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Former Child Soldier Recounts Lubanga’s Meeting With UPC Commanders

A former child soldier in the group which war crimes accused Thomas Lubanga allegedly led today described a meeting Mr. Lubanga attended with the top commanders of the armed militia of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).

‘Witness 297’ told court that he was grabbed from his school by soldiers led by Floribert Kisembo and forcefully conscripted into the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC), the UPC’s armed wing. He went on to serve as a bodyguard to Mr. Kisembo, the man who, according to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC), was the chief of staff of the group.

Mr. Lubanga is on trial at the ICC over the recruitment, conscription and use of child soldiers in inter-ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo during 2002 and 2003. Prosecutors at the ICC allege that he was the head of the UPC, and the commander-in-chief of the FPLC, which used child soldiers.

Testifying with voice and face distortion to protect his identity, ‘Witness 297’ told the trial presided over by Judge Adrian Fulford that all through his time with the UPC, he only saw Mr. Lubanga twice. The first time was at a meeting Mr. Lubanga had with the group’s military commanders; the second time was when the witness was directed by Mr. Kisembo to be part of Mr. Lubanga escort team to the town of Bunia.

‘Witness 297’ was on the list of prosecution witnesses but was unable to testify in April last year due to ill health. The prosecution rested its case back in July last year. Mr. Lubanga’s lawyers earlier this year asked court to invite ‘witness 297’ to give evidence, claiming that much of his testimony fits in with the submissions of the defense.

For their part, prosecutors stated last week that they were very interested in hearing the testimony of ‘Witness 297’ particularly relating to his experience as a child soldier. But they added that the witness had made claims contrary to the prosecution’s position on the role intermediaries of the ICC’s prosecution investigators played in gathering evidence against Mr. Lubanga.

Prosecuting attorney Nicole Samson asked the witness to name some of the people who attended the commanders’ meeting that he said took place at a UPC military camp at Lopa. The witness said that besides Mr. Kisembo and Mr. Lubanga, other commanders at that meeting included Bosco Ntaganda, and others he identified as ‘Commander Patrick’ and ‘Commander Asiimwe’. The ICC has an arrest warrant out for Mr. Ntaganda, who it was reportedly the deputy chief of staff of the FPLC. He remains at large in Congo.

The witness said he and other soldiers – many of them also child soldiers –  stood guard outside a big house in Lopa where the commanders were meeting. He stated that he did not know whose house it was, and that he could not tell who had called the meeting.

“Did you see Mr. Lubanga after meeting?” asked Ms. Samson.

Replied the witness: “After the meeting I saw him when he came out of the house. Kisembo said that we had no ammunition left and we received authorization to fetch ammunition from the house where they were having their discussions.”

The witness said he trained at three camps, was deployed and fought in many areas but he never saw Mr. Lubanga in any of those places.

Mr. Lubanga’s defense has denied that he was in charge of the military matters of the UPC and the FPLC. Defense attorneys have also said that Mr. Lubanga opposed the presence of child soldiers in the group and that he went to great lengths to demobilize child the fighters in the group.

“Witness 297’ will continue giving his evidence tomorrow.