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ICC's first war crimes set to start

world Updated: Jan 23, 2009 08:42 IST

Nearly seven years after its birth, the International Criminal Court will start hearing its first trial Monday -- that of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga on charges of using child soldiers.

Lubanga faces three counts of war crimes for allegedly using hundreds of children under 15 in fighting in the eastern Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo between September 2002 and August 2003.

The prosecution alleges that as head of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebel group and the commander of its FPLC armed wing, Lubanga was responsible for recruiting children and using them in hostilities.

The trial is set to open with a summarising statement by chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, followed by legal representatives for Lubanga's alleged child soldier victims, and then the defence.

The first witness, a former child soldier, will take the stand on Wednesday, followed by his father, according to information provided by the prosecutor's office.

There will be about 30 witnesses in all, including child soldiers, ex-members of militia groups involved in the Ituri fighting, and experts in such speciality areas as determining the age of a child from bone X-rays.

"This case is about how serious it is to enlist hundreds of children and transform them into killers," Moreno-Ocampo told AFP in an interview.

"Through the child soldiers we will present the range of criminality that Lubanga produced. The child soldiers were forced to kill, were ordered to rape, were ordered to pillage, were ordered to burn."

The prosecutor said he was likely to seek a sentence "close to the maximum" of 30 years at the end of the trial, which he hoped to conclude this year.

Lubanga has yet to plead to the charges.

He left the DR Congo in 2003 after a European Union force was deployed to halt the bloodbath. He was arrested in the Congolese capital Kinshasa on an ICC warrant in March 2006 after the country's president asked the ICC to investigate.

Humanitarian groups say inter-ethnic fighting and violence involving militia groups in Ituri -- centred on control over one of the most lucrative gold-mining territories in the world -- has claimed some 60,000 lives since 1999 and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.

The UPC is mainly composed of people of the Hema ethnicity, pitched against the Lendu.

Lubanga's trial was initially set to start on June 23 last year but was suspended when judges ruled that prosecutors had wrongly withheld evidence that was potentially favourable to his defence.

The ICC ruled in November that the reasons for halting the trial no longer existed as the judges had been granted access to all the documents, many sourced from the United Nations.

But Lubanga's advocate, Catherine Mabille, has told AFP the defence team was not satisfied with the disclosure.

"The objective is to get the trial to start, whatever the conditions," she claimed. "We expect a firm and eloquent condemnation: it is the job of the ICC to produce convicted persons, especially its first!"

The ICC, which started operating in July 2002, is the world's first permanent tribunal to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Lubanga is being held at the United Nations detention unit in the seaside suburb of Scheveningen in The Hague.