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25 janvier 2009

Congolese warlord to go on trial at int'l court

The Associated Press, Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Hague, Netherlands: The International Criminal Court's first trial will bring hope to Africa's child soldiers and send a warning to the warlords who recruit them a Congolese activist who helped demobilize young fighters believes.

The world's first permanent war crimes tribunal begins its first trial Monday with Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga facing six charges of recruiting children some as young as 10 years old and sending them to fight and die in battle.
"What gives hope is that this is something that has never happened before," said Bukeni Tete Waruzi, an activist who has helped demobilize hundreds of children from brutal militias in the east of Congo.

"This will be a great lesson. Warlords back in (Congo) will learn that no one is untouchable."

The case is finally getting under way more than six years after the treaty creating the court came into force. While Lubanga is relatively unknown outside Congo, judges at the court are expected to decide soon whether to issue an arrest warrant for a far bigger fish Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, accused by the court's prosecutor of genocide in Darfur.

The U.N. estimates there are 250,000 child soldiers fighting in more than a dozen countries around the world.

A special U.N.-backed court prosecuting atrocities in Sierra Leone's bloody civil war has convicted rebels for using child soldiers, but Monday's trial will be the first international criminal case to focus solely on that crime.

"This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.

Lubanga, who is expected to enter not-guilty pleas to the charges on Monday morning, insists he was trying to bring peace to Ituri, a region in eastern Congo wracked by years of conflict between rival groups seeking to control its vast mineral wealth.

He was leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots and its armed wing during the time of the alleged crimes in 2002-2003, and he still has strong support among his Hema tribe in Ituri.

Among Hema people, "he is seen ... as someone who has tried to protect his ethnic group," said Waruzi, who now works for Witness, a human rights group founded by musician Peter Gabriel. (...)

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