The first witness at the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) inaugural war-crimes trial retracted his testimony on Wednesday after saying he was a former child soldier, prompting a probe into witness safety.
The retracted testimony led to a false start in the trial of Congolese militiaman Thomas Lubanga.
After testifying in the morning that he was recruited by Lubanga’s militia as a small boy and taken to a training camp, he later changed his story.
Constantly under Lubanga’s glare from the accused dock a few feet away, the youngster began displaying hesitation after less than an hour in the witness stand in The Hague.
Pressed by prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on whether he had indeed attended a military training camp, he replied: “No.” Lubanga could not hide a smile.
Bensouda then sought a delay of the trial for an investigation overnight into “concerns the witness has about protective measures … what happens after he gives his testimony and returns home”.
“We are convinced it has an effect on the testimony the witness is giving now,” she told three judges presiding over Lubanga’s trial on charges of recruiting hundreds of children under 15 to fight in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) five-year civil war, which ended in 2003.
Judge Adrian Fulford granted the prosecution time “to find out whether something has happened that could destabilise … the witness in such a way that he would deviate from the evidence”.
Until his change of mind, the witness had been giving testimony in Swahili from behind a screen to protect him from public view, although Lubanga, as well as the judge, prosecutors and defence lawyers could see him.
His voice and face have been electronically distorted on screens in the public gallery and his name withheld for his protection.
Lubanga (48) stared intently at the witness, who initially told the court that “Thomas Lubanga’s soldiers” had recruited him one day as he was walking home from school with friends.
“They had UPC uniforms … and rifles,” he said, referring to Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots.
“There were more of them than my friends and me together.”
The witness said he had been in the fifth grade of primary school at the time.
Speculating on the change of mind, Bukeni Waruzi, of a non-government body that helps demobilise Congolese child soldiers, said misplaced loyalty may be partly to blame.
“Thomas Lubanga will be his commander for the rest of his life, even after he is demobilised. Child soldiers have it in their heads that they cannot ‘betray’ their commanders.”
Lorraine Smith of the International Bar Association said Wednesday’s events “should remind us of the seriousness of the security of witnesses and the need for the court to ensure that people who testify are not put at risk by virtue of their testimony”.
Prosecutors said on the first day of the trial on Monday that Lubanga’s militia had been “an army of children”.
They allege he was driven by a desire to maintain and expand his control over the DRC’s eastern Ituri region, one of the world’s most lucrative gold-mining areas, where rights groups say inter-ethnic fighting has claimed 60 000 lives over the last decade.
To this end, Lubanga’s militia allegedly 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 said to be used as sex slaves.
The child soldiers were allegedly deployed in combat between September 2002 and August 2003.
Lubanga has pleaded not guilty. — AFP