THE HAGUE (Reuters) - Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga trained child soldiers to kill, pillage and rape, a prosecutor told the International Criminal Court at the start of its first war crimes trial on Monday.
Lubanga, 48, pleaded not guilty on the first day of the historic trial, which opened more than six years after the ICC was set up as the world’s first permanent war crimes court.
Lubanga, an ethnic Hema, is accused of enlisting and conscripting children under 15 to his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in Congo’s eastern Ituri district to kill rival Lendus in a 1998-2003 war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
ICC prosecutors say child soldiers recruited by the UPC were involved in hostilities between October 2002 and June 2003, and that some of them were forced to kill, while others lost their lives in combat.
In an opening address to the Hague-based court, chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said Lubanga committed the most serious crimes of concern to the international community — crimes against children.
“Lubanga’s armed group, recruited and trained hundreds of children to kill, pillage and rape. Hundreds of children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes. They cannot forget what they suffered, what they did, what they saw,” he said.
“They cannot forget the beatings they suffered, they cannot forget the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted. They cannot forget the sounds of the machine guns, they cannot forget that they killed. They cannot forget that they raped, that they were raped.”
Some of the children were now using drugs, some had become prostitutes, and others were jobless, Moreno-Ocampo said.
He said he intended to demand close to the maximum sentence, which court officials say is life imprisonment.
Moreno-Ocampo showed the court a map indicating where hostilities took place and videos he said showed Lubanga with child soldiers.
“At this stage, our client would like to plead not guilty,” Catherine Mabille, lead defense lawyer, told the court.
Dressed in a dark suit and red tie, Lubanga looked impassively ahead as his charges were read aloud to him.
Some 400 people in Congo’s eastern town of Bunia — at the heart of the Hema-Lendu violence — were watching the trial via video-link, including many UPC supporters, a Human Rights Watch official said.
She said the start of the trial is a signal to the world that there will be accountability for war crimes, but also urged the court to look into officials in Uganda and in Rwanda who armed and supported groups operating on the ground.
More than 30,000 children were recruited during the conflict in Congo, many given marijuana and told they were protected by witchcraft, according to Bukeni Waruzi, the Africa and Middle East coordinator for human rights group Witness.
Lubanga’s trial had been due to start in June 2008, but judges postponed 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 condition of confidentiality to protect sources in war zones.
But some procedural measures are still pending.
The three-judge court has allowed 93 victims to take part in the case and give evidence. They can also seek compensation.
Four of the victims are among the 34 witnesses that prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo will call during the trial, which is expected to be completed before the end of the year.
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 was handed over to the court in 2006 after Congo referred the case to the ICC prosecutor in March 2004.
The defense will make its opening statement on Tuesday.
Editing by Katie Nguyen