The first-ever war crimes trial begins Monday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, with former Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga facing charges of enlisting child soldiers during the country's 2002-2003 conflict.
The International Criminal Court in The Hague began its first-ever war crimes trial on Monday with the case of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga, accused of recruiting hundreds of child soldiers to kill members of an ethnic minority.
Lubanga, 48, founder and leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern Ituri district, denies he enlisted and conscripted children under 15 to kill ethnic Lendus between October 2002 and June 2003. Lubanga is also accused of using the child soldiers as bodyguards.
As the trial kicked off, chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo made an opening statement to the court which accused 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," Moreno-Ocampo said.
"They cannot forget the beatings they suffered ... the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted. They cannot forget that they raped and were raped.
The prosecutor said that some of the victims had turned to drugs and prostitution after their ordeals.
"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.
"Another boy will tell you how he was abducted while playing football with his friends. You will hear how a child soldier younger than 10 was shot by one of Lubanga's men because he lost his weapon."
Moreno-Ocampo's opening statement was to be followed by those of lawyers for 93 alleged victims, and then the defence.
The first witness, a former child soldier, is expected to take the stand on Wednesday, as is his father. The prosecution has listed 34 witnesses, including former child soldiers, former members of militia groups involved in the Ituri fighting, and an array of experts in such speciality areas as determining the age of a child from bone X-rays.
It is not known how many witnesses the defence will call.
NGOs estimate that thousands of child soldiers were involved in the Democratic Republic of Congo conflict. According to the Africa and Middle East coordinator for human rights group Witness, Bukeni Waruzi, more than 30,000 children were recruited. Many were plied with marijuana and told they were protected by witchcract.
Humanitarian groups say inter-ethnic fighting and violence involving militia groups in Ituri -- centred on control over one of the most lucrative gold-mining territories in the world -- has claimed some 60,000 lives since 1999 and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.
Lubanga’s UPC is mainly composed of people of the Hema ethnicity.
The ICC is investigating cases in Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan’s western Darfur region and Uganda. Four suspects have been arrested.
Lubanga was handed over to the court in 2006 after the DRC referred the case to the ICC proscecutor in March 2004. The trial is expected to last six to nine months.
The ICC court in the Netherlands has the backing of 108 nations. The United States and China are not members, and the court’s effectiveness is under close scrutiny.
Date created : 2009-01-26