The International Criminal Court has ruled that Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga should be released from custody as his war crimes trial has been suspended, unless prosecutors launch an appeal bid within days.
REUTERS - The International Criminal Court on Thursday ordered the release of accused Congo militia leader Thomas Lubanga, saying it had no grounds for keeping him after his trial in the Hague was put on hold.
The trial of Lubanga, who had pleaded innocent to charges of recruiting child soldiers, was halted last week by the court, which said that the prosecutor had refused to turn over information to the defence.
"An accused cannot be held in preventative custody on a speculative basis, namely that at some stage in the future the proceedings may be resurrected," the court said in a statement.
Disclosure of material by the prosecution has been an issue in the Lubanga case for years, with disputes over evidence holding up the trial's start.
Lubanga is accused of enlisting and conscripting children under 15 years of age to his Union of Congolese Patroits to kill members of a rival tribe in a 1998-2003 war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has pleaded not guilty and described himself as a politician, not a warlord.
The court said on Thursday the release order would not be implemented immediately since an appeal can be filed within a five-day time period.
Chances that Lubanga will be released in the short term are considered small because the court built a number of conditions into its ruling.
"If an appeal is filed within the five-day time limit against this order granting release, and if a request is made to suspend its effect, the accused shall not leave detention until the Appeals Chamber has resolved whether this order granting release is to be suspended," the court said.
The court also said that an order releasing Lubanga will be put into effect only after arrangements have been made for his transfer to a state that is obliged to receive him.
Still, it made sense to ask for his release, said Jan Wouters, a professor of international law at the Catholic University Leuven.
"A fair trial also means a timely trial. In that sense the court has an obligation to set an example," he said. "In the meantime it appears that the trial is turning into a sparring match between the court and the prosecutor, while no final ruling has been given in the court's eight year existence."
The ICC is also trying other accused Congolese warlords for crimes committed during the fighting in the giant, resource-rich country.
Lubanga's trial resumed in January, six months after prosecutors ended their case. His defence has argued that the child soldiers who testified against him made up their stories.