Tribunal to Debut With Congo Case

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 5, 2006

The International Criminal Court is set to begin its first case this week in The Hague, where a three-judge panel is to hear charges and evidence against Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who has been indicted as one of Africa's most notorious recruiters of child soldiers.

The hearing, set for Nov. 9, is a necessary procedural step before Lubanga can be brought to trial. The case is unusual because Lubanga is being prosecuted solely for the forcible enlistment of children younger than 15, a war crime that can be prosecuted under the international court's jurisdiction.

The court was established in 2002, despite strong objections from the United States and a global U.S. lobbying campaign aimed at stopping other countries from participating. Supporters of the court say that how the upcoming proceedings unfold may lay to rest some skepticism on the part of its critics about the court's effectiveness and establish precedents for other cases -- such as those concerning northern Uganda and the Darfur region of Sudan -- that the ICC is investigating with tacit U.S. support.

While the United States is not a party to the International Criminal Court, 102 countries have ratified the treaty, called the Rome Statute, which brought it into being. After years of official U.S. hostility, court supporters say, the debate in some military and political circles here seems to be shifting to how U.S. policy and the court's goals intersect.

"Before, the ICC's critics were afraid it would be abused to scrutinize Americans in the military. But that is not why it is here," said Raj Purohit, a senior fellow with Citizens for Global Solutions, a nongovernmental organization that supports the tribunal. "The court exists to bring to justice horrendous war criminals who have done terrible things, such as Lubanga."

The United States has helped set up separate, U.N.-backed tribunals of limited duration to try war crimes suspects from conflicts in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia. Deposed Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was tried in an Iraqi court set up with U.S. assistance.

While it has a relationship with the United Nations, the International Criminal Court is independent, with its own budget, using funds supplied by participating member governments. In addition to ICC member states, the U.N. Security Council can refer cases to the court. Proceedings can be suspended for a year at a time in the interest of peace negotiations or other specific circumstances.

On Aug. 28, the office of Fatou Bensouda, the ICC's deputy prosecutor, filed its evidence and charges alleging that Lubanga deliberately rounded up child soldiers and funded military training camps and the arms the children would carry. The evidence includes testimony from six child soldiers.

Lubanga was arrested in March 2005, and a year later was transferred to a Dutch prison unit in The Hague reserved for the ICC. He has denied the charges and faces a possible maximum life sentence if convicted.

Hearings in the case have been postponed twice -- once to give Lubanga's lawyers the required 60 days to prepare a defense, and a second time to ensure that "protective measures for victims and witnesses were in place," Bensouda said.

Four million people perished during the 1998-2003 Congo conflict, known as Africa's first world war. Two million people have been displaced -- left impoverished and at the mercy of disease and epidemics. Six countries became involved in the Congo crisis, arming militias and fueling killing sprees. Congolese went to the polls last Sunday in a presidential runoff with the hope of putting that violent legacy behind them.

Officials and specialists interviewed said the court's push to get to the trial stage in the Lubanga case has major implications for democracy in Congo. "The timing of this . . . in the context of Congo's elections means spoilers and snakes in the grass will lose power," said John Prendergast, senior adviser to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization.

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