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Lubanga Trial: Identities Of Child Soldiers Queried

The main highlight of the Thomas Lubanga trial this week was the presentation by the defense of several documents, which allegedly showed that at least seven prosecution witnesses who claimed to have been child soldiers lied about their identities. The documents included school reports and registers from the institutions which various prosecution witnesses claimed they attended prior to their conscription into the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC).

Defense lawyers said documentary evidence showed the witnesses did not attend those institutions, casting doubt on the credibility of their testimonies. Mr. Lubanga faces the charges of recruiting, conscripting and using child under the age of 15 in armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo during 2002 and 2003.

Nine prosecution witnesses testified that they were former UPC child soldiers. Most of them recounting how they were conscripted, the inhumane treatment they underwent at the camps of the UPC, and the battles they were forced to take part in by the militia’s commanders.

However, the defense has dismissed these witnesses, saying testimony by its own witnesses would show that six of the prosecution witnesses were never child soldiers, the seventh lied about his age and the conditions in which he enrolled, while the eighth witness never belonged to the UPC.

This week also saw the disclosure by prosecutors that a witness who completed giving evidence on Monday this week had asked the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to help him pay dowry. Prosecuting attorney Nicole Samson said that the witness who asked for assistance to pay dowry is a former prosecution witness who was unable to testify in April last year. He was called to the witness stand last week at the behest of the defense.

This witness, who went by the name ‘Witness 297’, related to court how he was abducted from school by UPC soldiers under the command of Floribert Kisembo, the man prosecutors at the International Criminal Court (ICC) allege was the chief of staff of the UPC. The witness, who said he was a former child soldier, recounted how he later served as a bodyguard to Mr. Kisembo, and fought in various battles.

On Tuesday, Judge Adrian Fulford said it had emerged that the witness told an OTP investigator in April 2009 that he was hoping for assistance from the court as regards his dowry. “It seems to us that this could be interpreted properly as expressing a somewhat unusual financial interest in giving evidence before this court,” said the judge. He added that the judges considered that the prosecution should have disclosed this information to the defense, which would then have been able to question the witness about his request.

Judge Fulford directed the prosecution to advise court over the coming days whether there have been similar indications given by prosecution witnesses in which they demonstrated an interest in receiving money from the court beyond ordinary subsistence while subject to protective measures or attending The Hague to give evidence.

During the cross-examination of ‘Witness 297’, he admitted to contradictions between his testimony in court and the statements he made to prosecutors in 2008.

Defense counsel Jean-Marie Biju-Duval read out several paragraphs from the statement which the witness gave to OTP investigators, then asked him to explain why in that statement he claimed his commander at a camp called Dele was Mr. Kisembo, yet in court he stated that it was Bosco Ntaganda.

The witness said Mr. Ntaganda was in fact his commander, but he feared telling investigators the truth. “I had heard on the radio that there were attempts to arrest Bosco [Ntaganda]. That is why instead of Bosco, I gave the name of Kisembo. I hadn’t heard people say that they were trying to arrest Kisembo at that time,” said the witness. Mr. Ntaganda is alleged by ICC prosecutors to have been the deputy chief of staff for UPC, and there is an arrest warrant out for him.

‘Witness 297’ also admitted that in his statement to prosecutors and to defense lawyers who interviewed him  last December, he omitted mentioning that after quitting the UPC, he enlisted with the National Integrationist Front (FNI), a rebel group led by Mathieu Ngudjolo. Mr. Ngudjolo is being tried at the ICC with war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The witness said that around the end of 2005 or the start of 2006, he volunteered to join the FNI. Mr. Lubanga had by then been arrested and Mr. Ngudjolo’s group was recruiting former fighters with the promise that the government would start paying them salaries, he said.

‘Witness 297’ also conceded that contrary to his earlier statement, Mr. Kisembo was not the commander at the camp at Barriere. Further, the witness admitted that in his statement to prosecutor he did not mention a battle he was involved in at Nizi.

“I didn’t explain to investigators about Nizi because many people died in Nizi… a number of soldiers died in the river and this is why I was afraid of providing an explanation to investigators on the circumstances under which this occurred,” stated Witness ‘297’.