Congolese militiaman's trial milestone for world court

23rd August 2011, Comments 0 comments

The International Criminal Court will soon see the end of its very first case, once the closing arguments are heard this week in the war crimes trial of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga.

Thursday and Friday "will mark a historic milestone for the ICC (with) the conclusion of its very first trial", prosecution spokeswoman Florence Olara told AFP on Monday.

Lubanga's trial began in January 2009 and the international tribunal has also since begun the trials of two other militia leaders from the Democratic Republic of Congo, while being at varying stages of progress with cases from elsewhere in Africa.

The prosecution, victims' representatives and the defence will each have a last chance to speak in the trial of Lubanga, 50, accused of using children under the age of 15 to fight for his militia during the DR Congo's five-year civil war, which ended in 2003.

Judges will then retire before deciding whether to find Lubanga guilty. If he is convicted, a sentence will be imposed and in addition the militia leader could also be ordered to pay compensation to victims in the DR Congo's eastern Ituri region, one of the world's most lucrative gold-mining areas.

Rights groups say inter-ethnic fighting in the area, over land and resources, has claimed 60,000 lives over the past decade.

First transferred to the Hague-based ICC in March 2006, Lubanga pleaded not guilty to the charges. His defence team accused prosecutors of using false witnesses.

His trial was initially to have started in June 2008, but was stalled when the court ruled that prosecutors wrongly withheld evidence that was potentially favourable to his case.

The prosecution alleges that Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) militia under his control abducted children as young as 11 from their homes, schools and football fields and took them to military training camps where they were beaten and drugged. Girls among them were allegedly used as sex slaves.

Lubanga's trial started on January 26, 2009, and prosecutors and the defence finished presenting their evidence in May. During the 28-month hearing, the prosecution called 36 witnesses, the defence 24 and three representing victims.

Some 118 victims were allowed to participate in the proceedings.

"This first trial is very important as it is with this that the ICC began to build its case law and interpretation of its rules of procedure and evidence," ICC spokesman Fadi El-Abdallah told AFP on Monday.

"This case has taken longer than expected, but other pending cases will go faster and faster than the Lubanga trial," he added.

The ICC, which opened its doors in 2002, is the first permanent global tribunal to try perpetrators of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide.

The Court has begun investigations into six countries: the DR Congo, Uganda, the Central African Republic, Darfur in Sudan, Kenya and Libya. The prosecutor is notably seeking to bring Sudan's President Omar el-Beshir to court for war crimes and genocide in Darfur.

However, the African Union has put its weight behind Beshir, who has not been arrested during his travels. The court has no powers of arrest and depends on countries that have ratified its founding Rome Statute to make them.

The court's prosecutor opened an investigation into the situation in the DR Congo on June 21, 2004.

Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, two Congolese militia leaders whom prosecutors said fought against Lubanga's FPLC, also face war crimes and crimes against humanity charges. They went on trial on November 24, 2009, for an attack on a village in the DRC in 2003.

Former DR Congo vice president and rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba is among those held by the court, facing trial for the actions of his fighters when they went across the border into Central African Republic to help put down a coup bid in 2001.

© 2011 AFP

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