Court Orders Trial for Congolese Warlord Accused of Conscripting Children

By Nora Boustany
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The International Criminal Court ruled Monday that Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, charged with recruiting child soldiers as young as 10 and sending them into battle, will be the first defendant to face trial at the newly established court.

At a public hearing in The Hague, presiding Judge Claude Jorda announced that evidence presented by prosecutors was sufficient to "establish strong grounds to believe" that Lubanga was responsible "for war crimes consisting of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15."

Lubanga, 46, led a faction in the civil war that broke out in Congo in 1998, drawing in forces from numerous neighboring countries. He was arrested in Kinshasa in March 2005 and moved to a high-security detention facility near the Dutch North Sea coast the following year. A father of seven, he holds a degree in psychology.

Jorda said that children were "led to kill" in clashes between ethnic Hema and Lendu people in the Ituri region, and that some fighters under age 15 lost their lives. Many of the underage soldiers were systematically drugged to numb them against the fear of warfare, he said.

Three boys and three girls, one only 10 years old when Congo's civil war broke out, were among those interviewed in preparing the case.

Backed by 104 countries, the International Criminal Court is meant to replace the current system of ad hoc courts prosecuting war crimes suspects in specific conflicts, such as the ethnic wars in the former Yugoslavia. The United States has declined to join, saying the court's proceedings are likely to be politicized and result in unjust prosecution of Americans.

Lubanga denies the recruitment charges. Lawyers on his defense team have called the prosecution a political maneuver and compared their client, head of the Union of Congolese Patriots, to South Africa's Nelson Mandela. Lubanga was trying to save Congo's natural resources of gold, diamonds and timber from theft by outsiders, they contend.

The United Nations estimates that around the world at least 300,000 child soldiers have been enlisted into military units against their will, often abducted on their way to or from school.

Last week, a report by New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the Karuna, a Sri Lankan group that split off from the Tamil Tiger rebels, of abducting hundreds of children in eastern Sri Lanka, in complicity with the country's military and government, to deploy them against the rebels.

The court's decision Monday "means a beginning of the end to the complete impunity that has prevailed for horrific crimes in eastern Congo," said Richard Dicker, international justice program director for Human Rights Watch, in a telephone interview from New York. "At the same time, this can only be the start." He called for other charges to be pursued, beyond recruitment.

Raj Purohit, a senior fellow at the Washington-based advocacy group Citizens for Global Solutions, called Monday's ruling "a very important step, going after the recruiters. . . . It is a headline but not the magic bullet. Alongside the ICC, we should make sure international financial institutions such as the World Bank and others are ready to help in funding reintegration programs to rehabilitate child soldiers into society."

Another step to be considered, he said, is special dispensation for child soldiers during peace negotiations, so that they are treated as victims, not criminals.

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