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Witness recants in Congo war-crimes trial

Image: Thomas Lubanga
Former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, talking to villagers near the eastern town of Bunia in June 2003, is accused of training child soldiers to kill, pillage and rape during the region's bloody 1998-2003 conflict.Antony Njuguna / Reuters file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A former Congolese child soldier recanted his testimony against an accused warlord Wednesday, throwing a landmark war crimes trial into confusion in its opening stages.

The International Criminal Court adjourned for consultations after the witness said an account he gave hours earlier was untrue.

The witness, whose name and age were not released, was the first witness in the case of Thomas Lubanga, who is charged with recruiting youngsters under age 15 and sending them into battle in the Ituri region of eastern Congo in 2002-2003. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 30 years imprisonment.

Lubanga's trial is the first since the court was created in 2002 as the world's only permanent war crimes tribunal, and the proceedings are being closely watched for the precedents they are setting.

The young man had told the court that armed troops plucked him off the street while he was on the way home from school and sent him to a military camp. At the time, he was in the fifth grade in the town of Fataki.

After the lunch break, deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda tried to pick up the story by repeating the earlier testimony and asking if that were correct.

"No," he replied. "That is not what I intended to say."

In a complete turnaround in his testimony, he said workers of a nonprofit organization had spoken to him and his friends at school. "They took our addresses and told us they could help us. After that we went back home," he said, speaking through an interpreter.

He was not allowed to continue.

Faulty translation?
After a brief recess, Bensouda told the court she wanted to investigate what caused the witness to reverse his earlier account, and sought a review of the protective measures to ensure his safety, even after he returns to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While in court, his voice and image were distorted in video transmissions to the public gallery and on an Internet feed. He sat behind a screen while testifying to protect his identity.

Both prosecutors and the defense also said they believed the transcript of the earlier testimony was marred by faulty or incomplete translation.

The rocky start to witness testimony deepened concerns over issues of fairness. The start of the trial already had been delayed more than six months because of a dispute over the disclosure of evidence given in confidence by the United Nations and other agencies in Congo, some of which was beneficial to Lubanga. Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford was on the verge of freeing Lubanga and dismissing the case when a deal was struck.

In the morning testimony, the witness said the soldiers who seized him and his friends were fighters from Lubanga's Union of Congolese Patriots.

"They said the country was in trouble and that young people must mobilize to save the country," he said. "I said that we were still very small."

Lawyers protest
Lubanga's lawyers argue that he was arrested and sent to The Hague because he was a political opponent of President Joseph Kabila.

His French attorney, Catherine Mabille, complained to the judges that a screen set up in the Congolese town of Bunia for the public to follow the trial broadcast only the opening statements by prosecutors and lawyers for victims, but was switched off when she made her opening address.

After checking into the complaint, Fulford said the screen showed coverage from Congo television and not a live feed of the trial. He said it was "regrettable" that her address was not broadcast, but beyond the court's control.

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