Trial resumed today with the continued cross-examination of Thomas Lubanga’s private secretary, Michel Angayika Baba. The prosecutor was unable to get a concession from the witness that children under the age of 15 were used in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and its armed wing, the Patriotic Force for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). While Mr. Baba confirmed that children under 18 years of age were present at a military rally in Bunia in June 2003 after the UPC/FPLC returned, he said then-President Lubanga ordered their immediate demobilization when he saw them. He would not confirm that these young people had been part of the UPC/FPLC, however. The important point, he said, was that they were immediately demobilized. When prosecutor Manoj Sachdeva suggested the demobilization order was never implemented, Mr. Baba would not agree.
While Mr. Baba confirmed that children under 18 years of age were present at a military rally in Bunia, in eastern Congo, in June 2003 after the UPC/FPLC regained control of the town, he said then-President Lubanga ordered their immediate demobilization when he saw them. However, h would not confirm that these young people had been part of the UPC/FPLC. The important point, he said, was that they were immediately demobilized. When prosecutor Manoj Sachdeva suggested the demobilization order was never implemented, Mr. Baba did not agree.
Mr. Lubanga, former head of the UPC, is on trial for allegedly committing war crimes by recruiting, conscripting, and using children ages 15 and under as soldiers in his fighting forces during the conflict in the Ituri District of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 2002 and 2003. His is the first trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
After Mr. Baba concluded his testimony today, the defense called Origen Lokana Nyamutale Katekpa, the coordinator of self-defense committees in Hema villages set up in 1999 to defend against Lendu attacks. The UPC was mainly comprised of members of the Hema ethnic community that primarily fought the Lendu community.
Mr. Katekpa said they needed to use all available hands for protection, including those under 15 years of age. The self-defense groups did not take age into account. If someone could fight with a machete, spear, or firearm, they were given it. The committees were autonomous but linked enough to share resources. When a weapon was needed, money would be collected from every villager, and the witness would purchase it – usually from soldiers of the Congolese Popular Army (APC) or the Ugandan troops.
Mr. Lubanga invited Mr. Katekpa and a few other self-defense committee chairmen to a meeting on February 25, 2003, where he ordered them to demobilize and disarm fighters under the age of 18. The meeting turned acrimonious when the president demanded that the weapons be turned over to the FPLC, the witness testified. The self-defense committee chairmen resisted because it would leave their communities defenseless. When a village was attacked, FPLC troops arrived too late to protect them, the witness said. Moreover, the communities had purchased the weapons. Mr. Lubanga threatened that the weapons would be seized if they were not turned over. In the end, the chairmen decided to demobilize and disarm the children but to keep the weapons.
The self-defense committees were not happy with the president’s directive as the demobilization of children would reduce the number of fighters who could protect the villages. Mr. Katekpa said that some committees demobilized the children.
Under cross-examination by prosecutor Nicole Samson, Mr. Katekpa testified that the self-defense committees sent young boys to the UPC for military training. While the boys were expected to return to their villages, they never did. However, he insisted, they never sent boys under 15 years of age. Ms. Samson suggested that was not true because Mr. Lubanga had made no age restrictions at that time and the self-defense committees had included children among their fighters. The witness denied this.
The witness sought to distinguish the self-defense committees from the UPC. They never fought side by side or coordinated with one another, Mr. Katekpa said. The self-defense committees were autonomous and had not received military training, precluding them from engaging in joint military actions with the FPLC, he concluded. However, he admitted that the UPC held military control over most of Ituri after August 2002.
The prosecutor returned to the February 25, 2003 meeting called by Mr. Lubanga. She suggested that Mr. Lubanga promised to protect the villages from further Lendu attacks, if they turned in their weapons to the FPLC. Earlier the witness listed a series of attacks that occurred against Hema villages shortly before this meeting. Ms. Samson pointed out that an attack the day before the meeting resulted in 200 people killed, property looted and burned, and a forced withdrawal of the FPLC. The witness downplayed the attack and denied that Mr. Lubanga promised to protect the villages. He merely acknowledged their request for protection, he said. Ms. Samson read the meeting minutes that the witness himself had taken, contradicting his denial. The witness then accepted that a promise was made, though it was not kept.
The prosecutor suggested that at a time when there were a large number of attacks and defeats, it seemed unlikely that Mr. Lubanga was primarily concerned with demobilizing child soldiers, something he had never addressed before with the self-defense committees. He needed all the fighters – of whatever age – he could get. Mr. Katekpa did not agree with her suggestion.
Ms. Samson then tried a different tack. Mr. Lubanga had requested that everyone in the self-defense committees be demobilized and turn over their weapons, had he not, she asked. The weapons were needed for the FPLC. No, the witness responded, he only asked that the children be disarmed. Ms. Sampson then read from the transcript of the witness’ earlier testimony: “The president asked us to give weapons to the UPC military. We didn’t agree. It would leave us defenseless. We would be unable to protect ourselves. So we really objected that our rifles would be taken – when we bought them with our own money.”
The prosecutor then contended that Mr. Lubanga was discussing disarmament of adults as well as children. Mr. Katekpa responded, “I can’t answer. You can ask Mr. Lubanga,” then insisted that Mr. Lubanga had not asked the adults to turn over their weapons.
The prosecutor secured the witness’s agreement that the self-defense forces of one village would not go to the aid of another village if it came under attack. If a child under 15 years old takes part in an attack on a village not his own, he is not part of a self-defense force, her question implied. What Ms. Samson left for the judges to conclude was whether these children would logically be under the command of another fighting force, that is, the FPLC.
The trial will resume tomorrow morning with a new witness.