Congo militiaman claims innocence before world crimes court

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Former Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga proclaimed his innocence Friday before the world crimes court's first trial where he faces war crimes charges for recruiting child soldiers.

Lubanga, 50, is accused of using children under the age of 15 to fight for his militia during the Democratic Republic of Congo's five-year civil war, which ended in 2003.

"Throughout proceedings before this majestic court, I have been unable to recognise myself in the criminal acts attributed to me," he told a three-bench judge before the Hague-based court.

Referring to "noble values and beliefs" Lubanga said he was educated in, he stated: "it is these beliefs and values that have always guided my actions... and the actions I have carried out against the recruitment of minors."

The war crimes trial of the alleged founder of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and chief commander of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) opened on January 26, 2009. Lubanga pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors as well as victims' representatives and Lubanga's defence made their final statements Thursday and Friday before ICC judges retire to mull a judgment as the case draws to an end.

"This brings to a close this part of the trial," said presiding judge Adrian Fulford following Lubanga's testimony.

He did not say when a judgement was expected in the ICC's first trial, adding "any attempt to do estimates invariably fails."

Earlier Thursday afternoon Lubanga's defence said nine witnesses presented by prosecutors as former child soldiers had lied to the court.

"School records show... beyond doubt that these children were on school benches when they claimed being at the worst atrocities," Lubanga's lead counsel Catherine Mabille told the court.

Lubanga's trial was suspended on July 8 last year for three months after the prosecutor's refusal to disclose to Lubanga's defence team the name of an "intermediary" used by prosecution investigators to find witnesses to Lubanga's alleged crimes.

The militia leader's defence team claimed that false testimonies were "fabricated" with the help of intermediaries and in collaboration with the prosecutor's office.

The defence then tried in vain to stay proceedings.

ICC deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told judges Thursday that Lubanga was guilty "beyond reasonable doubt" of conscripting child soldiers.

If convicted, judges can sentence Lubanga, but they have the option of asking parties involved on what they thought to be an appropriate punishment before making a decision.

In addition, the militia leader could also be ordered to pay compensation to some 118 victims in the DR Congo's eastern region, one of the world's most lucrative gold-mining areas.

Two other trials are currently pending before the ICC including Congolese militia leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, who were Lubanga's former enemies.

They face crimes against humanity and war crimes charges and have been on trial since November 24, 2009, for the attack on a village in the DRC in 2003.

Former DRC deputy president Jean-Pierre Bemba has been on trial since November 22, 2010 for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in the Central African Republic.

Opening its doors in 2002, the ICC, is the world's only independent, permanent tribunal with the jurisdiction to try genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

© 2011 AFP

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