THE HAGUE, Jan 26 – The first-ever trial of the International Criminal Court began on Monday with a Congolese militia commander denying he committed war crimes by recruiting hundreds of child soldiers to kill and rape.
"At this stage our client would like to plead not guilty," Thomas Lubanga’s lawyer, Catherine Mabille, said on the first day of the trial in The Hague.
Lubanga, 48, is accused of recruiting children under the age of 15 to fight in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo between September 2002 and August 2003.
"The Lubanga militia was an army of children," chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told a panel of three judges of the ICC, which came into operation in July 2002 as the world’s first permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
"Around 30 percent of the soldiers in the Lubanga militia were child soldiers.
"He stole the childhood of the victims by forcing them to kill and rape."
Humanitarian groups say inter-ethnic fighting and violence involving militia groups in Congo’s eastern Ituri region has claimed some 60,000 lives since 1999 and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.
The prosecution alleges that Lubanga’s role in the conflict in Ituri was driven by a desire to maintain and expand his political control over the region, one of the world’s most lucrative gold-mining territories.
His armed group is accused of massacres of ethnic Lendu civilians in 2002 and 2003, including in his stronghold Bunia, the Ituri capital.
In his opening statement to the court, Moreno-Ocampo accused Lubanga’s militia of having "recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to kill, pillage and rape."
"The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga’s crimes. They cannot forget what they suffered, what they saw, what they did. They were nine, 11, 13 years old," the prosecutor said.
"They cannot forget the beatings they suffered … the terror they felt and the terror they inflicted. They cannot forget that they raped and were raped."
The court was shown video footage of Lubanga surrounded by boys and girls wearing uniforms and carrying guns, and told of a boy under the age of 10 who was shot by his militia bosses for losing his gun.
"His (Lubanga’s) political and military career is built on the use of child soldiers," said deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.
The fate of girl soldiers was particularly horrific, Moreno-Ocampo told the court.
"Some aged 12 years, they were used in the training camps as cooks and fighters, cleaners and spies, scouts and sexual slaves.
"One moment they would carry a gun, the next, they would serve a meal to a commander, the next, the commander would rape them. They were killed if they refused to be raped."
Some of Lubanga’s alleged victims have since turned to drugs and prostitution, said the prosecutor, adding he would seek a "very severe" sentence for Lubanga — "close to the maximum" of 30 years.
"Lubanga affected … an entire generation and this must be reflected as a powerful aggravating factor in his sentence, if convicted."
The prosecution has listed 34 witnesses, including nine former child soldiers, ex-members of militia groups involved in the Ituri fighting, and experts in such speciality areas as determining the age of a child from tooth and bone x-rays.
The trial is expected to last between six and nine months.
The first witness, a former child soldier, is to take the stand on Wednesday, followed by his father.
Lubanga is being held at the United Nations detention centre in the seaside suburb Scheveningen of The Hague, to where he was transferred by the DR Congo government in 2006.