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Defense Witness Denies Forced Conscription of Children in Second Day of Testimony

Today, judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) heard the continuation of testimony from defense witness Bede Djokaba Lambi Longa. Mr. Longa, an official of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC), described a reconciliation program the UPC initiated from September 2002 to March 6, 2003, under the auspices of its National Secretariat for Pacification and Reconciliation. He called the program “noble and ambitious.” At the time, the witness said, society was breaking up following years of fighting. He described a number of official attempts to promote peace and reconciliation with the ethnic Lendu and warlords of other groups. Their efforts were well-received, Mr. Longa testified, and they achieved positive results.

On February 18, 2003, all communities living in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the United Nations Military Observer Mission in Congo (MONUC), and other international representatives gathered to witness the signing of an agreement on truth, peace, and reconciliation, according to the witness. Implementation was a problem, he said. A meeting between the UPC and the Lendu in Uganda was unsuccessful because the Lendu sent young people and not their prominent leaders. The UPC also lacked the financial means for implementation, Mr. Longa testified.

Mr. Longa is testifying on behalf of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, former rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), who is on trial for the recruitment, conscription, and use of children under 15 years of age in armed conflict during 2002 and 2003. The trial, the first held at the ICC, has suffered delays and setbacks, stemming from charges of witness tampering and giving false testimony.

The UPC’s pacification program included disarming self-defense groups or vigilantes, as Mr. Longa variously referred to them, and reintegrating child soldiers into their home communities. In October 2002, the UPC used radio broadcasts to remind parents of their obligation to keep their children from serving in the military and communities of their duty to care for returning child soldiers, the witness told the judges.

In response to questions by defense counsel, Mr. Longa said Bosco Ntaganda was responsible for conscription and training of soldiers as of September 2002. (Mr. Ntaganda was charged by the ICC with Mr. Lubanga for recruitment, conscription, and use of child soldiers. He remains at large.) There were never any cases of forced conscription while Mr. Longa was with the UPC, he asserted. He based his conclusion on reports from the secretary of the interior and his belief that prominent individuals would not have allowed it. “Such cases never took place, never took place!” he declared. From September 2002 to March 6, 2003, Mr. Longa regularly visited Mr. Lubanga in his office. He never saw minors (under 18 years of age) in his guard, he testified. He admitted seeing some commanders with guards who were not very tall, but insisted that gave no one a right to say they were children.

The UPC was chased out of Bunia on March 6, 2003, amid defections by several top officers, the witness testified. He claimed Uganda was behind it. The UPC army split up. Mr. Longa followed General Floribert Kisembo. While minors fled with them, none wore uniforms or carried weapons, he stated. The army’s chief of staff and his wife cared for the children, numbering approximately nineteen. Except for possibly one girl who helped in the kitchen, none of the minors were given tasks, according to Mr. Longa. They merely played in the yard. He told the judges that he did not see Mr. Lubanga at all during that time.

On May 12, 2003, he returned to Bunia, where he saw soldiers from different armed groups with minors among them. It was impossible to distinguish the groups as many wore UPC uniforms they had taken from a warehouse or picked up where they had been discarded. Mr. Longa left for a meeting on pacification in Dar es Salaam on May 15, where he saw Mr. Lubanga, who returned to Bunia and remained there until August 9. At that time, MONUC did not allow soldiers in the city of Bunia, except for a few bodyguards. None were minors, the witness said. On August 9, 2003, Mr. Lubanga left for another meeting on pacification convened by MONUC in Kinshasa. He appointed Mr. Longa interim president of the UPC in his absence.

On September 1, 2003, Floribert Kisembo, in a military putsch, declared himself president of the UPC in violation of UPC bylaws, the witness testified. UPC political leaders met and signed a document opposing this action as illegal and sent it to MONUC. Mr. Longa did not relate the outcome, but he remained active in the UPC. He described how relations with MONUC turned sour after a new representative was appointed. She was authoritarian, requiring her approval for meetings, burials, and circumcisions. At one point, a meeting of the UPC was broken up by tanks because they had failed to secure her permission, he said.

Mr. Longa concluded his testimony by describing his arrest on March 3, 2005, at the same time Mr. Lubanga was arrested. He testified that he has never been advised of the charges against him, though he inadvertently learned that he is charged with crimes against humanity. Mr. Longa told the judges that he was illegally detained for a year before he was brought before a judge and legal procedures for extending his detention have not always been followed. He has seen no evidence against him and was told the authorities are waiting for documents from the ICC.

The prosecution will begin cross-examining Mr. Longa tomorrow morning.