A former child soldier testifying in the war crimes trial of Thomas Lubanga said today that he was reluctant to quit the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia, even when a relief worker repeatedly promised him financial support if he abandoned military service.
‘Witness 297’, who was testifying for the second day, told the trial presided over by Judge Adrian Fulford that he did not want to quit the militia group because being a soldier offered him financial security.
He told court that UPC soldiers used to extort money from civilians at roadblocks. Sometimes the soldiers were sent by their commanders to get money from civilians, but they never handed over all the collections to their superiors. Other times the soldiers went out at night on their own initiative and hassled money out of civilians, he added.
‘Witness 297’ recalled that while serving as a UPC child soldier he had several meetings with a relief worker whose name was given as Mr. Mbusa. The witness stated that on many occasions he received soap and clothes from Mr. Mbusa, and that during these meetings the relief worker always advised him to quit military service. At that the time Mr. Mbusa used to distribute food and other relief items to displaced people in the war-torn Ituri province.
Some of the meetings the witness had with Mr. Mbusa were attended by investigators from the Office of The Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC), said the witness. He said that he repeatedly reneged on promises made to Mr. Mbusa that he would quit the UPC.
He recalled meeting Mr. Mbusa and the investigators on several occasions in an office in Bunia town in Congo some time in 2003.
“They told me to withdraw from military service and they would help me if I ceased military service,” ‘Witness 297’ said of the discussions at the initial meetings with the ICC prosecution investigators. The witness said he was told that he would be offered financial assistance to enable him to train as a driver or a mechanic.
‘Witness 297’ was on the list of prosecution witnesses but due to ill health he did not get to testify last April as had been scheduled. The prosecution rested its case last July, but it has expressed interest in hearing the incriminating evidence this witness has.
However, the prosecution is also questioning ‘Witness 297’ about his claims about the alleged role played by an intermediary of the OTP in corrupting evidence against Mr. Lubanga. In fact, because of the claims made by ‘Witness 297’ about that intermediary, it is the defense which recently made the request to judges to invite this witness to testify. The defense claims that much of his testimony fits in with their own submissions on the alleged coaching of witnesses and falsification of evidence by the intermediaries.
On his first day of testimony yesterday, the witness said he underwent training at three UPC camps, was deployed and fought in many areas but he never saw Mr. Lubanga in any of those places.
He stated that during his time with the group, he only saw Mr. Lubanga twice – once when he was ordered to be part of Mr. Lubanga’s escort team and on another occasion when Mr. Lubanga attended a meeting with the top commanders of the armed militia of the UPC. The witness told court that he served as a bodyguard to Floribert Kisembo, the man ICC prosecutors claim was the chief of staff of the militia.
Mr. Lubanga is on trial at the ICC over the recruitment, conscription and use of child soldiers in inter-ethnic conflict in Congo during 2002 and 2003. Prosecutors at the ICC allege that he was the head of the UPC, and the commander-in-chief of its armed militia which used child soldiers.
‘Witness 297’ will continue his testimony tomorrow.