, THE HAGUE, Feb 29 – The International Criminal Court will issue a verdict in the trial of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga on March 14, the tribunal’s first judgment since it was launched almost a decade ago.
“The decision on the innocence or guilt of Thomas Lubanga will be delivered on March 14 by ICC judges,” the Hague-based court said in a statement, adding the public hearing was to start at 10am (0900 GMT).
Lubanga, 51, faces two war crimes charges for enlisting child soldiers under the age of 15 to fight for his militia during the bloody five-year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo which ended in 2003.
First transferred to The Hague in 2006, the alleged founder of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) party and chief commander of its military wing went on trial in January 2009, with closing arguments finishing in August last year.
Lubanga has pleaded not guilty before the ICC, the world’s first permanent tribunal dealing with genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and which opened its doors in 2003.
Lubanga’s defence team has accused prosecutors of using false witnesses, claiming at least nine alleged child soldiers were in school when the worst atrocities in the Congo’s eastern Ituri region were being committed.
The trial was initially to have started in June 2008, but was stalled when the court ruled that prosecutors wrongly withheld evidence that was potentially favourable to his case.
Prosecutors allege that Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC) militia under Lubanga’s control abducted children as young as 11 from their homes, schools and football fields.
They were taken to military training camps where they were beaten and drugged, while the girls among them were alleged used as sex slaves.
The child soldiers were alleged deployed in combat between September 2002 and August 2003.
During 204 days hearings, prosecutors in all called 36 witnesses, the defence 24 and three represented victims.
If convicted, Lubanga will face a sentence – and in addition the militia leader could also be ordered to pay compensation to victims in the Ituri region, an area holding some of the world’s most lucrative mineral resources.
Presently 14 cases have been brought before the ICC of which four are in the trial stage. Situations in seven countries – the Central African Republic, Darfur, the DRC, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Libya and Uganda – are being investigated.