/ 27 January 2009

ICC war crimes trial is unfair, says Lubanga lawyers

Lawyers for Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga denounced his war crimes trial as unfair on Tuesday, accusing prosecutors of abusing International Criminal Court (ICC) rules to shroud the proceedings.

”How can we have a fair trial under [these] conditions?” defence counsel Catherine Mabille argued in The Hague on the second day of Lubanga’s trial, the first-ever before the ICC.

”There has been a wholesale abuse of the rules by the office of the prosecutor,” she charged. ”The [situation] is prejudicial and detrimental to the defence.”

Lubanga (48) pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges of recruiting hundreds of child soldiers to fight in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in the Congolese civil war between September 2002 and August 2003.

Humanitarian groups say inter-ethnic fighting and violence involving militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) eastern Ituri region has claimed about 60 000 lives since 1999 and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

The prosecution alleges that Lubanga’s role in the conflict in Ituri was driven by a desire to maintain and expand his control over the region, one of the world’s most lucrative gold-mining territories.

It says his militia 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. The girls among them were used as sex slaves.

Mabille listed an array of concerns — including the prosecution’s use of a secrecy clause, normally reserved for exceptional cases, to obtain most of its evidence.

Also worrying was the fact that the majority of alleged victims represented at the trial were anonymous, and that many prosecution witnesses will testify behind closed doors, he said.

Claiming the defence and the public had been excluded from about half of pre-trial hearings, Mabille said this prevented her client from defending himself adequately.

”If we do things this way, international criminal justice will become very secretive,” the lawyer told the three presiding judges.

Fellow defence counsel Jean-Marie Biju-Duval said Lubanga’s prosecution was a political move, pointing out that the case had been referred to the ICC in March 2004 by DRC President Joseph Kabila, a political opponent.

”The prosecution has placed you in the worst of possible [situations],” he told the judges.

”Those who bear the brunt of responsibility; not only are they untouched, but it was one of them who arrested and surrendered this person to the ICC. What image of international justice does this give?”

Urging the judges to demonstrate independence, he said: ”Your judgement should not be a smokescreen behind which powerful players continue to commit crimes.”

His client, added Biju-Duval, ”wants to have a trial where nothing remains in the shadows”.

The ICC, which came into operation in July 2002, is the world’s first permanent tribunal to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

The first witness, a former child soldier, is expected to take the stand on Wednesday. — Sapa-AFP