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Global court starts with a fumble. Warlord grins.

Witness recants testimony during start of Congo militia leader Thomas Lubanga's trial.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 30, 2009

Thomas Lubanga: The former militia leader is standing trial this week at the International Criminal Court for his Congolese militia's alleged use of child soldiers.

Reuters

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The Hague

The script was set for the first trial of the world's first permanent war crimes court this week:

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Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo went after warlord Thomas Lubanga, charged with recruiting 30,000 child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, saying Mr. Lubanga's acts would "haunt a generation."

But 48 hours later, the prosecution's first witness, a child soldier, caused the entire court to gasp.

At first, the young soldier said he was snatched by Lubanga's militia on his way home from fifth-grade classes. The witness, now a teen, then threw the landmark case briefly into limbo when he recanted his testimony, denying that he'd ever been a child soldier taken to a military training camp, and that his testimony was prompted by an unnamed nongovernmental organization.

In the court, Lubanga, sitting behind the defense team in dark suit and tie, and in clear view of his alleged former child recruit, smiled.

Prosecutors suggested to Chief Judge Adrian Fulford, of Britain, that the star witness, who was to give two days of testimony, felt unprotected and feared for his safety. A probe is now under way.

The washout of the International Criminal Court's (ICC) first witness is another blow for a court whose own judges nearly threw out the Lubanga case last June over a dispute about evidence sharing.

Justice experts, including Jon Silverman of the University of Bedfordshire, in Britain, note that "you have to take a long view," describing years of delay and a rocky start in the trial of Sierra Leone strongman Charles Taylor. That trial, convened under the auspices of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and also held here at The Hague, is now moving quickly.

The Lubanga case is the first for the ICC since it was formed in 2002. The idea for the court emerged after the relative success of war crimes tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, with experts hoping that stronger concepts of justice would serve as a soft-power deterrent against heinous acts and genocide.

The court has since moved in fits and starts. Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo made a splash last summer by indicting Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, but most of the ICC's focus so far is on Congo, where little-noticed wars have claimed some 5.5 million lives. Four Congolese alleged warlords are now at The Hague; a joint trial of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo is expected in several months.

Legal experts say the ICC's strategy is to deter young Congolese warlords, whose fearsome private militias promote their own careers as they fight over gold, land, and other natural resources.

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