updated 11/9/2006 11:18:53 AM ET 2006-11-09T16:18:53

Wearing a traditional blue African shirt and flanked by guards, a former Congolese militia leader accused of using child soldiers to kill and mutilate his enemies appeared Thursday before judges who will decide if he will be the first person to stand trial at the International Criminal Court.

Thomas Lubanga, who denies the charges against him, identified himself to the three-judge panel as the former president of the armed group Union of Congolese Patriots.

Prosecutors say the group and its armed wing recruited children and trained them to kill members of rival tribes during the 1998-2002 Congo war, which drew in armies from a half-dozen African nations. If the children refused to fight, they were threatened with execution, the indictment against Lubanga alleges.

Lubanga was arrested in March 2005 in Congo and transferred to the Hague-based court a year later.

Defense lawyers call him a pacifist who attempted to restore calm in Congo’s lawless Ituri region.

If the panel decides Lubanga will stand trial, his would be the first case to be heard by the permanent war crimes tribunal, established in 2002.

Recruiting child soldiers
Lubanga is the only suspect in the court’s custody. Prosecutors say his case is key to focusing international attention on the widespread practice in Africa and other parts of the world of recruiting child soldiers, often by force. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 child soldiers are involved in conflicts around the world.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers were making their opening statements Thursday, along with lawyers for victims. The hearing is scheduled to take three weeks.

“Regardless of the outcome, this case will expose the destructiveness of forcing children to fight adult wars,” deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda told reporters Wednesday.

The hearing — almost a mini-trial — is meant to determine whether the evidence against Lubanga is strong enough to merit a full trial, which could last months. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.

The hearing marks the first time prosecutors have presented evidence to a panel of the court’s judges.

Victims finally have a voice
Attorneys representing victims will be present throughout the case and will be able to make opening and closing statements.

“It is simply a matter of great importance that this court allows victims to be heard and to be given the respect which was stripped from them at the time that they suffered as they did,” said victims’ lawyer George Gebbie.

Defense lawyers can challenge the evidence and cross-examine a witness who is expected to appear next week.

After the hearing, judges have 60 days to decide whether to proceed to a full trial, throw out the charges or order prosecutors to amend their charges.

“The hearing to confirm these important charges marks a milestone for the victims in Ituri,” Geraldine Mattioli of New York-based group Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday.

“But these charges only begin to address the horrific acts committed,” she said. “If the ICC is going to have an impact on ending impunity in Ituri, the prosecutor must pursue more charges against Lubanga and target more perpetrators responsible for atrocities.”

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