ICC trial screening turns sour in Bunia

A live screening of the International Criminal Court's maiden trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) province where the alleged crimes took place was halted on 26 January because of security concerns.

Police deployed extra officers after hundreds more people than expected turned up at a public hall in Bunia, capital of Ituri district, to see the opening of the case of Thomas Lubanga. The former head of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) is charged with the war crime of recruiting children into his armed group and training them to kill, pillage and rape.

Many who came to follow the trial were UPC supporters. Some threatened to throw stones and cause damage if they were not admitted to the already packed hall.

The screening had been organised by the ICC office in Bunia because few people in the town have televisions as well as in an effort to prompt debate among civil society groups as part of reconciliation efforts.

"We didn't think so many people would show up. There was no real dialogue with the public and some people began to insult us," said Caroline Maurel, who works to improve understanding of the ICC in Ituri.

Lubanga's case had been delayed by procedural issues relating to the admissibility of certain evidence gathered from confidential sources.

Human rights groups were happy to see it finally get off the ground. "The trial has dragged on too much for the victims and everybody [else]. It [the trial] sends a strong signal for the prevention of similar crimes in Ituri and the DRC," said Gilbert Tandia, the human rights NGO network coordinator.

“If Lubanga tells the truth then Ituri will know those behind the horrible crimes,” Tandia said. Lubanga was arrested on 17 March 2006 in Ituri and later handed over to the ICC.

One of Lubanga’s supporters, Mateso Ngabu, who had travelled 25km to watch the Bunia screening, told IRIN, “Thomas Lubanga will be freed like Mbusa Nyamwisi and Bosco Ntaganda, who have also not been arrested."

Nyamwisi, a former rebel leader, was integrated into the Kinshasa government while Ntaganda is a senior member of the Congrès national pour la défense du people, an erstwhile rebel group based in North Kivu that seems to have thrown in its lot with the government.

Jean Baptiste Detsuvi, acting president of the UPC, which is now a bona fide political party, said, "All the images and what the court is projecting as child soldiers are a set-up; they are mistaken because in the DRC and especially in Ituri one [mis]takes someone of 20-25 to be a 14-year-old child."

UPC provincial deputy John Tinanzabo said the ICC court had only selected evidence favourable to the prosecution.

A member of the Lendu ethnic community, traditional foes of the Hema that dominate the UPC, told IRIN, “The blood of the people of Ituri has been spilled. It is time for those who commanded the bloodshed to be known and punished so that justice and real reconciliation can come to Ituri.”

Local radio stations continued to provide coverage of the trial.