Warlord accused of press-ganging children in DRC

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) warlord Thomas Lubanga was accused on Monday of press-ganging children and using them to kill and rape, as the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) first trial opened at The Hague.

Lubanga, leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) militia, pleaded not guilty to charges of recruiting hundreds of children under the age of 15 to fight in his country’s bloody civil war.

The trial is the first since the ICC was founded in 2002 as the world’s first permanent court to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. It has been hailed by human rights groups and the International Bar Association as a landmark in developing international law, although the court has run into problems over delays in Lubanga’s trial and controversial indictments, including that of Sudan’s leaders over killings in Darfur.

The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, opened his case by accusing 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,” he said.

“They cannot forget the beatings they suffered. They cannot forget the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted. They cannot forget the sounds of the machine guns, they cannot forget that they killed. They cannot forget that they raped and were raped. Some of them are now using drugs to survive, some have become prostitutes.”

Moreno-Ocampo said he would call former child soldiers as witnesses who would testify that they were snatched from their families and forced to fight. “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. “You will hear how a child soldier younger than 10 was shot by one of Lubanga’s men because he lost his weapon.”

Besides witnesses, the court will allow evidence by 93 victims who have asked to be party to the case.

Aid agencies estimate that 30 000 children were recruited by armed groups during conflicts that consumed the DRC after 1996.

Human rights groups have criticised the ICC for only charging Lubanga (48) with crimes related to child soldiers when his militia was also responsible for the mass killings and torture of civilians, mostly members of the Lendu ethnic group in the Ituri area of north-eastern DRC.

Ituri was the centre of battles involving Congolese militias and invading Rwandan and Ugandan forces for control of mines in the area, as well as ethnic violence between the Hema and Lendu. But it was only a small part of the broader conflict, involving invasions and civil war, which claimed millions of lives.

Lubanga fled in 2003 after an international force was deployed in the area to halt the bloodshed. A year later he appeared in the DRC capital, Kinshasa, after the government promised to promote him to general in the army if the UPC laid down its arms.

But after nine UN peacekeepers were killed in renewed fighting in Ituri in 2005, he was arrested by the Congolese authority and a year later transferred to The Hague. The trial is expected to last up to nine months. — guardian.co.uk

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