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Global court to decide on launching first trial

Reuters | January 28, 2007
Emma Thomasson

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The International Criminal Court (ICC) will decide on Monday whether there is enough evidence to try a Congolese militiaman for using children as soldiers in what would be the new court's first trial.

A decision to confirm charges against Thomas Lubanga and launch a trial would be a major landmark for the ICC that was set up as the first permanent global war crimes court in 2002 and is now backed by 104 countries.

The court could also throw out the charges, request further evidence and investigations, or ask prosecutors to consider amending a charge. Some victims' groups want the charges expanded to include crimes such as killings, rape and torture.

"What's most likely is that the judges will confirm the current charges against Lubanga in light of the evidence put forward by the prosecutor," said Geraldine Mattioli, international justice advocate of Human Rights Watch.

Democratic Republic of Congo -- rich in gold, diamonds and timber -- was the battleground for rebels, local factions, tribes and several neighboring countries, including Uganda, in a 1998-2003 war in which 4 million people died, mainly from hunger and disease.

Prosecutors say Lubanga, the founder and leader of one of the most dangerous militia in Congo's Ituri district, trained children to kill, made them kill and let them be killed. He was sent to the Hague court last March.

The 46-year-old, who holds a degree in psychology, has denied the charges. His lawyer has accused the prosecution of withholding information he needs to prepare the defense and said Lubanga was Congo's Nelson Mandela -- a man unjustly detained.

Lubanga is the only suspect to be delivered so far to the court that issued its first arrest warrants in 2005 for leaders of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), who have led a 20-year insurgency that has kills tens of thousands.

In an eagerly anticipated move, ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo has also said he plans to charge suspects for atrocities in Darfur by February, nearly two years after the U.N. Security Council asked him to probe the Sudan region.

CHILD WARRIORS

The charges against Lubanga, leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), an ethnic militia now registered as a political party, relate to the July 2002-December 2003 period.

Up to 30,000 children were associated with Congo's armed groups during the height of the war, according to estimates.

The prosecutors' indictment said the children, who often joined the militia because of their desperate need for food or desire to avenge their murdered families, were subject to systematic military training and severe discipline.

Commanders urged them to kill members of the Lendu ethnic group in Ituri without instructing them to differentiate between soldiers and civilians, prosecutors said.

Ituri has been a bloody corner of Congo where ethnic violence between the Hema and Lendu and clashes between militia groups vying for control of mines and taxation have killed 60,000 people since 1999.

If the court confirms the charges against Lubanga, his trial is expected to start later in the year.

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