Today, the age of young soldiers who served in the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia has been in focus in the Bosco Ntaganda trial. Ntaganda, the former deputy chief of staff of the UPC, faces 18 charges, including recruiting and enlisting children under the age of 15. Defense lawyers put to task a prosecution witness who worked on demobilizing the soldiers to explain how she concluded that some of the soldiers were under 15 and suggested that some of the children lied about their age.
Testifying for the fourth day at the International Criminal Court (ICC), Kristine Peduto, who worked as a demobilization officer with the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC) during 2002-2005, said she was not always able to verify the age of the children she interviewed who purportedly served as soldiers in the UPC. However, defense lawyer Christopher Gosnell submitted that the children who spoke to UN officials may have lied about their age to militia leaders and to UN demobilization officials.
“Were any of the children you interviewed able to give you a birth date?” asked Gosnell.
“We were asking for their age. Some gave birth dates,” responded Peduto.
The defense lawyer then asked, “Did you hear that children lied to representatives of armed groups in order to affiliate themselves with those groups?”
Peduto responded that she remembered one case related to the UPC where a child voluntarily joined the group after initial attempts failed. “He said first he had been sent away, and he came back several times for the opportunity to join. In the end, the commander in charge gave him something to do” after he had lied about his age.
However, she dismissed Gosnell’s allegations that many children passed themselves off as older in order to join the militia. “There was no indication aside from very few cases of children reported to have been refused to join. Children said they were entering into [training] camps without any kind of screening,” said the UN official.
The defense’s cross-examination of Peduto yesterday and today sought to poke holes in her testimony that there were child soldiers in the UPC.
In the trial of Thomas Lubanga, the commander-in-chief of the UPC, judges determined that the nine witnesses presented by the prosecution as former child soldiers lied about their identities, ages, and having served with the UPC. Their evidence was rejected, but judges nonetheless concluded that there were child soldiers in UPC.
In her testimony, Peduto has recounted numerous stories of young fighters associated with various armed militia – including the UPC – in Congo’s Ituri region during ethnic conflict in 2002-2003. As part of a MONUC Special Investigations Team, she interviewed more than 420 children during the process of disarming, demobilizing and re-integrating them back into the community.
Peduto conceded that she was unable to ascertain the ages of the majority of children she interviewed who were associated with the UPC. “A lot looked much younger than the age they were providing,” she stated on Monday. The UN official, who concluded her testimony today, previously testified in the trial of Lubanga, who was found guilty by ICC judges of conscripting and using child soldiers in hostilities.
The trial continues tomorrow with the testimony of a new prosecution witness.