ICC stalls return of DR Congo witnesses seeking asylum

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The International Criminal Court has suspended the return to the Democratic Republic of Congo of three witnesses who are asking for political asylum in The Netherlands, a court source said Friday.

An ICC preliminary chamber has "decided to defer the return of the three detained witnesses to the extent that the question of their protection ... has not yet been settled," read a decree handed down Thursday.

The three men, who were already in jail in the DR Congo capital Kinshasa, were transferred to the ICC in The Netherlands on March 27 to testify in the trial of two militia chiefs accused of the massacre of more than 200 people at Bogoro in the DR Congo's northeastern Ituri region in 2003.

Once in the ICC detention centre, they made statements alleging that DRC President Joseph Kabila had a hand in the Bogoro attack, which has been blamed on his foes during a time of conflict across the vast nation.

Defence lawyers for the three men say that they cannot safely return to the DRC after having testified against the authorities. In May, they requested political asylum in The Netherlands.

In March, DR Congo's Justice Minister Emmanuel Luzolo Bambi told AFP that the men would testify in the trials of Thomas Lubanga and Germain Katanga and would "only be in The Hague for one and a half months maximum and will then come back to Kinshasa."

The ICC has asked Kinshasa to send details of the protective measures that would be taken if the witnesses were returned to prison in their home country.

The ICC, which came into being in July 2002 as the world's first permanent tribunal dealing in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, has never before been confronted with the need to detain witnesses pending developments.

The court's founding Statute of Rome provides for the return home without delay of witnesses once they have given evidence, but it also requires measures to protect individuals who may be under threat.

© 2011 AFP

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