In a landmark hearing due to start yesterday at the International Criminal Court, prosecutors will seek to persuade judges that an alleged Congolese war lord should be tried for recruiting child soldiers and using them to kill and mutilate his enemies.
"Regardless of the outcome, this case will expose the destructiveness of forcing children to fight adult wars," deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said on Wednesday.
The three-week hearing -- almost a mini trial -- at the Hague-based court is meant to determine whether evidence against Thomas Lubanga is strong enough to merit a full trial, which could last months. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
The hearing marks the first time prosecutors have presented evidence to a panel of the court's judges. Next week, they will call a witness, whose identity has not been released, to testify against Lubanga.
Defense lawyers can challenge the evidence and cross-examine the witness. They call Lubanga a pacifist who attempted to restore calm in Congo's lawless Ituri region.
Lubanga is the only suspect in the court's custody. Prosecutors say his case is key to focusing international attention on the widespread practice in Africa and other parts of the world of recruiting child soldiers, often by force.
After the hearing, judges have 60 days to decide whether to proceed to a full trial, throw out the charges or order prosecutors to amend their charges.
Prosecutors say that Lubanga's Union of Congolese Patriots, known by its French acronym UPC, and its armed wing, the FPLC, recruited children and trained them to kill members of rival tribes. If they refused to fight, they were threatened with execution, his indictment alleges.
Six children, one aged just 10 at the time, are cited in the charges but have not been publicly identified. None of them will testify at the hearing.
The court's decision to focus its first case only on recruiting child soldiers has been both lauded and criticized.
"The hearing to confirm these important charges marks a milestone for the victims in Ituri," Geraldine Mattioli of New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Wednesday.
"But these charges only begin to address the horrific acts committed by the UPC. If the ICC is going to have an impact on ending impunity in Ituri, the prosecutor must pursue more charges against Lubanga and target more perpetrators responsible for atrocities," she said.
The case is also a milestone for victims of alleged war crimes, marking the first time they will be represented in hearings at an international tribunal.
Attorneys representing victims will be present throughout the case and will be able to make opening and closing statements.
"It is simply a matter of great importance that this court allows victims to be heard and to be given the respect which was stripped from them at the time that they suffered as they did," said victims' lawyer George Gebbie.