International court starts first war crimes trial

THE HAGUE Sun Jan 25, 2009 11:50am EST

In this file photo Thomas Lubanga, leader of Congo's UPC rebel group (Union of Congolese Patriots), talks to villagers on his way to a rally in Barriere village int the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 5, 2003. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

In this file photo Thomas Lubanga, leader of Congo's UPC rebel group (Union of Congolese Patriots), talks to villagers on his way to a rally in Barriere village int the Democratic Republic of Congo, June 5, 2003.

Credit: Reuters/Antony Njuguna

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THE HAGUE (Reuters) - A Congolese militia leader will be the first suspect to go on trial at the International Criminal Court on Monday, in a test of the credibility of the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.

Thomas Lubanga, who founded and led the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in Congo's eastern Ituri district, is accused of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 to kill members of the Lendu ethnic group during the 1998-2003 war.

Ethnic violence in the Ituri region between the Hema and Lendu and clashes between militia groups vying for control of mines and taxation have killed 60,000 people since 1999.

Lubanga, 48, denies the charges and his defense counsel declined comment ahead of the trial, which begins more than six years after the Hague-based ICC was set up.

"The first trial is the first trial, so I think it's very, very important for the court to show how well it works," ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told Reuters this week.

The ICC has the backing of 108 nations, but experts say it still faces many challenges including winning endorsement from powers such as the United States and China, and scrutiny over its effectiveness.

Moreno-Ocampo said lessons had been drawn from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, long criticized for the slow progress of its cases.

"Our policy was always to be very focused. I believe this trial will end this year," he said.

"NO ONE IS UNTOUCHABLE"

More than 30,000 children were recruited during the conflict in DRC, many plied with marijuana and told they were protected by witchcraft said Bukeni Waruzi, the Africa and Middle East coordinator for human rights group Witness.

Waruzi, who is working to reintegrate child soldiers in their communities, said they deserved justice but in a country marked by a culture of impunity, many of them had questioned whether justice would be served.

He applauded the ICC, which took into custody its first suspect -- Lubanga -- in 2006.

"I believe this will be a great lesson that the warlords in the DRC will learn that no one is untouchable," he said.

Lubanga's trial was originally due to begin in June 2008. Judges suspended it on concerns Lubanga would be denied a fair trial because the defense was unable to view some evidence against him.

The matter was resolved in November when prosecutors began releasing documents to the defense that had been provided on the condition of confidentiality to protect sources in war zones.

The ICC has so far issued 12 arrest warrants for investigations in the Central African Republic, Sudan's western Darfur region, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Four suspects have been arrested.

Besides Lubanga, a second trial is likely to start in 2009 against Congolese rebel leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui.

Lubanga is not the ICC's most high-profile suspect.

In July Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo sought the arrest of Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. ICC judges have yet to decide whether to issue an arrest warrant for Bashir, who denies the allegations.

(Editing by Katie Nguyen)

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