The Hague-based International Criminal Court began on Thursday its first pre-trial hearings of a case against a former militia leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Referred to as "Confirmation of Charges Hearing", the court's sessions are presided over by a bench of three judges, led by Claude Jorda of France. During the sessions, expected to last until 28 December, the judges will assess whether charges brought by ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo can be confirmed.
Lubanga was a militia leader in the DRC's volatile northeastern district of Ituri, where armed activity has claimed the lives of at least 60,000 civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands since 1999. He founded and led the Union des patriotes Congolais (the Union of Congolese Patriots - UPC), which has since transformed itself into a political party.
The prosecution claims that as UPC leader, Lubanga coordinated the recruitment of child soldiers for the militias.
Arrested in February and imprisoned in Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, Lubanga was handed over to the international court on 16 March. He was formally charged on 28 August with "enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 as soldiers and using them to participate actively in hostilities".
After the pre-trial hearings, the ICC judges will decide whether or not to confirm the charges brought against Lubanga and commit him to trial. If the judges confirm the charges, the court will then move forward in its first trial since its statutes came into force on 1 July 2002.
At the start of the hearings, Ocampo made a presentation on the evidence he would provide to the court to establish substantial grounds to argue that Lubanga committed the crimes with which he is charged.
Lubanga's defence team was given a chance to object to the charges and challenge evidence through his lawyer, Jean Flamme.
Lawyers representing four victims presented their clients' perspective on the charges facing Lubanga and their concerns.
Lubanga's UPC has been implicated in ethnic killings, torture and rape. The New York-based rights advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in February 2005, Congolese authorities arrested Lubanga and others following the killing of nine United Nations peacekeepers in Ituri, but they were not brought to trial.
Although the current charges against Lubanga represented an important step toward bringing justice to the victims of war crimes in Ituri, HRW said it was concerned about their narrow scope.
"Enlisting, conscripting and using children as soldiers in armed conflict are serious crimes that should be tried and appropriately punished," HRW said in a statement. "We believe much more is needed."
HRW said examples of the involvement of UPC forces in other serious crimes in Ituri abound, including murder, torture and sexual violence. In December 2002 and early 2003, UPC forces attacked several towns near Ituri's gold mines, including Kilo, Kobu and Lipri. In Kilo, HRW research showed that UPC combatants abducted men, women and children whom they said were Lendu, an ethnic group that they considered their enemy.
"They forced the victims to dig their own graves then killed them with hammer blows to the head," HRW said. "An estimated 100 people were killed in this town alone."
Commenting on the charges, the president of the DRC Association of Defense of Human Rights, Amigo Gonde, said: "We think that all the Congolese people are disappointed by the charges against against Lubanga which appear feeble when compared to the crimes committed during the war in Ituri.
"Many Congolese are waiting and hoping that the ICC will broaden the charges by taking account of other crimes such as massacres and arson of whole villages … We have made on the spot investigations; we know these facts. The witnesses and victims are there."
The chairman of DRC's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Reverend Kuye Ndondo, said: "These cases must be punished and the authors of similar deeds must be brought to justice to end impunity."
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions