September 4, 2007
The International Criminal Court is investigating whether hearings for its first trial of Thomas Lubanga, former Congolese warlord charged with conscripting child soldiers, can be heard in Congo rather than in the Hague.
"The possibility of in situ hearings is being considered," judge Adrian Fulford said at a pretrial hearing for Thomas Lubanga, the only suspect in the court's custody. Fulford said an official was studying the feasibility of holding hearings in Congo. He did not elaborate and it was not immediately clear if the court, which has two purpose-built trial chambers in its Hague headquarters, is proposing to stage parts or all of the trial in Africa. No date has yet been set for the trial, but it is unlikely to start before the end of 2007.
Speaking after Tuesday's hearing, the court's deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told The Associated Press that prosecutors supported the idea. "We are always in favor of bringing justice closer to the victims and certainly one way of doing this is having the trial in the region," Bensouda said. The judge's comments came as fighting in the east of the country - near where the alleged crimes happened - has intensified. However, human rights activists welcomed the news.
"I think the people (in Congo) would very much welcome that because for them the ICC is very far away," said Geraldine Mattioli of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "They have the impression that the whole process is quite remote." But Mattioli acknowledged that there would be major logistical and security difficulties in staging the trial in Congo. She said that Lubanga's supporters in his former power base of Bunya resent the fact that Lubanga is so far the only person indicted by the court despite widespread reports of atrocities committed by all sides in savage interethnic fighting after Congo's 1998-2002 civil war. "Our impression ... is that probably having in situ hearings in Bunya in that kind of atmosphere would not be safe," Mattioli said.
Prosecutors say Lubanga forced hundreds of children to fight in the armed wing of his political party, the Union of Congolese Patriots, in the lawless Ituri region of eastern Congo from July 2002-December 2003. Lubanga's army allegedly trained children to kill members of rival tribes. Many were killed in battle and others executed for attempting to flee, prosecutors say. Defense lawyers say Lubanga, who was flown to The Hague in March 2006, is a pacifist politician who attempted to restore calm in Ituri.
He was arrested a year earlier by authorities in Kinshasa as part of a crackdown aimed at restoring order to Ituri after the slaying and mutilation of nine U.N. peacekeepers. A rival warlord was charged in the peacekeeper killings.
While Lubanga is the only suspect currently in the court's custody, it also has issued arrest warrants for a Sudanese government minister suspected of atrocities in Darfur and an alleged senior Arab militia leader also accused of crimes there. It is also seeking the arrest of senior members of Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army, including its leader, Joseph Kony.
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