A former child soldier in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) today admitted to contradictions between his testimony in court and the statements he made to prosecutors in 2008.
The admission came after Thomas Lubanga’s defense counsel, Jean-Marie Biju-Duval, read out several paragraphs from the statement which the former child fighter who is referred to as ‘Witness 297’ gave to investigators from the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Mr. Biju-Duval asked the witness to explain why in his statement to investigators he claimed that his commander at a camp called Dele was Floribert Kisembo, yet in court he stated that it was Bosco Ntaganda.
The witness replied that at the time he met the investigators he was afraid of mentioning Mr. Ntaganda’s name because he had heard on the radio that there were attempts to arrest Mr. 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,” he added. The witness affirmed today that the commander at that camp was Mr. Ntaganda, not Mr. Kisembo.
According to ICC investigators, Mr. Kisembo was the chief of staff of the UPC militia, while Mr. Ntaganda deputized him. “Witness 297’ has recounted in court how he was abducted from school by soldiers under the command of Mr. Kisembo. He stated that he went on to serve as a bodyguard to Mr. Kisembo, and then to Mr. Ntaganda. The ICC has an arrest warrant out for Mr. Ntaganda, who is believed to be at large in Congo.
Mr. Biju-Duval read out to the witness other paragraphs from the statement he made to prosecutors in March 2008, in which he talked about Mr. Ntaganda but never mentioned that he had been his commander.
Replied the witness: “Yes, I told investigators that I saw Bosco three times but I was afraid of saying everything about him… because I said to myself that I might be arrested and thrown in prison. Or I might be asked to tell people where Bosco was.”
‘Witness 297’ 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 in 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. The witness stated he stayed with the FNI for three months and then he was sent home.
Mr. Lubanga is on trial over the recruitment, conscription, and use of child soldiers in armed conflict during 2002 and 2003. Prosecutors charge that the UPC, which Mr. Lubanga allegedly led, used child soldiers to kill, pillage, and rape.
‘Witness 297’ today also conceded that contrary to his statement to prosecutors, 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’.
‘Witness 297’ was on the list or prosecution witnesses, but he was unable to testify in April 2009 due to ill health. His travel to The Hague to give evidence this month was requested by the defense, as it claimed that much of his testimony is in favor of Mr. Lubanga.
Meanwhile, ‘Witness 29’ who was called by the defense was not able to begin his testimony today. Judge Adrian Fulford said although the witness was in The Hague, judges had been informed that due to miscommunication he was available at the court to take the witness stand. This witness will begin his testify tomorrow.