The first ever trial of the International Criminal Court (ICC) started yesterday with Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga accused of war crimes for using child soldiers.
The case finally went to trial more than six years after the court started work and six months later than planned after a fierce debate about confidential evidence derailed the case last year.
Lubanga, 48, is expected to plead not guilty to using children under the age of 15 as soldiers in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots political party in 2002 and 2003.
Lubanga claims he was a patriot fighting to prevent rebels and foreign fighters from plundering the vast mineral wealth of The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DR Congo) eastern Ituri region.
The UN estimates that up to 250,000 child soldiers are still fighting in more than a dozen countries around the world and activists say Lubanga’s trial will send a vital message to the armies in the DR Congo and elsewhere that recruit them.
“This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level,” said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program.
Lubanga was arrested by Congolese authorities in 2005 and flown to The Hague a year later. He is one of only four suspects in the court’s custody — all of them Congolese.
Originally slated to begin last June, the trial was held up for six months amid a dispute between judges and prosecutors over confidential evidence.
The hearings before a three-judge panel will be the first international trial to feature the participation of victims. A total of 93 victims of the Ituri violence will be represented by eight lawyers and can apply for reparations.
Warlords use everything from drugs to sorcery to turn them into ruthless killers, snatching away their childhood innocence, said Bukeni Tete Waruzi, an activist who has helped demobilize hundreds of children from brutal militias in the east of the DR Congo.
As a way of proving their worthiness to fight, some are ordered to murder their own relatives. Girls also are sent to fight or turned into sex slaves.
“I have met one boy who was 12 years old, a colonel,” Waruzi said. “He had been able to kill his uncle when others were fearing to do so.”