by Laura Angela Bagnetto
Article published on the 2009-01-27 Latest update 2010-09-20 16:30 TU
Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, pulled no punches when he presented his opening arguments in court on Monday in the trial of Democratic Republic of Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga. He accused the former leader of the Union Patriotes Congolais (UPC) of forcing children of 15 and under to fight, commit rape and rob.
Lubanga sat impassively in court, not changing emotion when the charges were read out, nor when his lawyer filed his not guilty plea.
Moreno-Ocampo outlined what course he will take to prove that Lubanga is guilty of enlisting and conscripting children aged 15 and under in the Iturri region of the eastern DRC. His men forced child soldiers to rape, kill and plunder for the UPC's military wing, the Forces Patriotiques pour la liberation du Congo, FPLC.
A number of these witnesses who are former child soldiers will be testifying before the court. Their faces and voices will be blocked from view in a special dispensation given by the court in order to protect those who have already suffered and will most likely be traumatised by recounting their stories of rape and murder.
In order to understand how Thomas Lubanga rose to power in the region, Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda spoke to the court, explaining how child soldiers have played a key role.
Lubanga, a member of the Hema tribal group, built up an army of children by encouraging parents, and sometimes forcing them to give their children to fight to kill Lendu, the rival ethnic group in the region.
She said that the prosecution will show evidence that he had exploited the children in the Iturri area, including his own people, the Hema, in order to build up his FPLC army.
"He organised recruitment campaigns and he sent emissaries to Bunia and surrounding areas to persuade or compel the Hema families to send their children to join his group," Bensouda said.
"Lubanga himself publicly decreed that each Hema family must support his military efforts by providing a child."
Bensouda promised that a witness will give testimony that Lubanga gave an order "to recruit anyone they could find".
Lubanga's Defence team: Marc Desalliers, Catherine Mabille, Jean-Marie Biju-Duval.
(Photo: ICC-CPI/Michael Kooren)
In addition, the prosecution said Lubanga tried to dupe the international community. Bensouda gave an example of 163 children who had trained in Uganda and were demobilized and reintegrated by Unicef.
She told the court he later rerecruited some 130 of the 163 children.
During his opening argument on Monday, Moreno Ocampo made a special mention of female child soldiers inducted into Lubanga’s FLPC militia.
"We have made it also our special mission to make sure during this trial, girl soldiers are not invisible," says Béatrice Le Frapper, special adviser to the prosecutor at the ICC.
"It’s been our experience that it’s been very difficult to have girl soldiers come and be witnesses because those victims, being the most vulnerable, suffered after being used as combattants, but also as sexual slaves."
Le Frapper says that former girl soldiers can be met in Kinshasa and Bunia, adding that "a lot of them are on drugs, a number of them live through prostitution".
"It’s very difficult to bring them here to give testimony," she says, adding that there is a lot of documentary evidence on their plight.
One day they would be on the front, and the next day they would be raped by their commanders, says Le Frapper. The young girls were used as porters, sex slaves and as cooks and cleaners, leading to problems on how to classify them for re-integration into society.
"Sometimes they are not accepted in the de-mobilisation programmes of the UN," she says.
Through all the suffering, there are those on the ground who still hope for justice.
Bukeni Waruzi, a Congolese activist currently with NGO Witness sums up the importance of the trial for the families of those who were abducted in his hometown, Ulvira, and what it means for the rest of the east of the country.
"It is a satisfaction for those victims who are in the DRC," he says. "This is an example that should touch the whole Great Lakes region.
"This region has a reputation for violence. So this trial should be a message to those criminals, to those who are still thinking of bringing war in the DRC or Burundi or Rwanda. That kind of impunity, that mentality, will no longer be tolerated any more."
On its first day, the court was cautious not to make any missteps as it sets a precedent for international human rights law.
The ICC has learnt from the experience of former international tribunals on the Rwanda genocide and the former Yugoslovia.
In order to make the trial an all-inclusive, the ICC is beaming the proceedings, via satelite, to the DRC, with a half-hour lag time to erase any mention of witnesses’ names, in case they are given despite a ban on mentioning them.
The NGO Coalition for the International Criminal Court has launched a blog called In Situ for Congolese to write their comments about the trial online.
The trial will continue in The Hague, while the world watches.
Chief Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo outlined what Lubanga has in store if convicted.
"I want to put the defence on notice, that the prosecution anticipates to call for severe punishment, very severe, close to the maximum," he said.