THE HAGUE (AFP) – The first-ever trial of the International Criminal Court began on Monday with a Congolese militia commander denying he committed war crimes by recruiting hundreds of child soldiers to kill and rape.
“At this stage our client would like to plead not guilty,” said Catherine Mabille, Thomas Lubanga’s lawyer at the start of the trial in The Hague.
Lubanga is accused of recruiting hundreds of children under the age of 15 to fight in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo between September 2002 and August 2003.
British judge Adrian Fulford was presiding over the trial at the ICC which came into operation in July 2002 as the world’s first permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
Humanitarian groups say inter-ethnic fighting and violence involving militia groups in the DR Congo’s eastern Ituri region — centred on control over one of the world’s most lucrative gold-mining territories — has claimed some 60,000 lives since 1999 and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.
After the plea, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo made an opening statement to the court which accused Lubanga’s militia of having “recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to kill, pillage and rape.”
“The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes. They cannot forget what they suffered, what they saw, what they did. They were nine, 11, 13 years old,” Moreno-Ocampo said.
“They cannot forget the beatings they suffered … the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted. They cannot forget that they raped and were raped.
“Some of them are now using drugs to survive, some have become prosititutes.”
The prosecutor said that some of the victims had turned to drugs and prostitution after their ordeals.
“You will hear from a boy who was just 11 when Lubanga’s militia abducted him as he was walking home from school with his friends,” he said.
“Another boy will tell you how he was abducted while playing football with his friends. You will hear how a child soldier younger than ten was shot by one of Lubanga’s men because he lost his weapon.”
The prosecution has listed 34 witnesses, including former child soldiers, ex-members of militia groups involved in the Ituri fighting, and an array of experts in such specialty areas as determining the age of a child from bone x-rays.
The first witness, a former child soldier, is to take the stand on Wednesday, followed by his father.
Lubanga’s defence team has not indicated how many witnesses it intends to call.
The trial is expected to last between six and nine months.
Lubanga, 48, is being held at the United Nations detention centre in the seaside town of Scheveningen near The Hague.
His armed group is accused of numerous massacres of ethnic Lendu civilians in 2002 and 2003, mainly in his stronghold Bunia, the capital of Ituri.
Lubanga fled Bunia after a European Union force was deployed in June 2003 to halt the bloodshed.
He reappeared in Kinshasa in 2004, where he stayed in a hotel while awaiting his promotion to the rank of general — a promise made by the government to militia chiefs who had agreed to lay down arms.
But a resumption of violence in Ituri and the murder of nine UN peacekeepers in February 2005 prompted Lubanga’s arrest by Congolese authorities the following month.
From prison in Kinshasa, the affluent and influential Lubanga is alleged to have remained in control of the operations of the UPC.
He was arrested on an ICC warrant a year later and transferred to The Hague.