- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

THE HAGUE — The boys and girls were as young as 10 when they were snatched from their families, trained to kill and sent to fight for an accused African warlord’s brutal militia.

Outlining evidence against the only suspect in the International Criminal Court’s custody, prosecutors said yesterday that Thomas Lubanga’s forces gave the children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a stark choice: kill or be killed.

Mr. Lubanga “made them train to kill and … made them kill,” prosecutor Ekkehard Withopf told a three-judge panel at The Hague-based court. “He let them die in hostilities. Many, many children.”

The hearing, scheduled to last three weeks, is to determine whether the evidence against Mr. Lubanga is strong enough to merit a trial. It would be the first trial at the court, which started work in 2002.

Prosecutors say Mr. Lubanga’s case will send the message that children can no longer be forced into battle with impunity. The United Nations estimates 300,000 child soldiers are involved in conflicts around the world.

“The practice of conscripting or enlisting children and using them in warfare represents one of the most brutal and morally troubling crimes against one of the most vulnerable groups in times of war — children,” deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.

Prosecutors say Mr. Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots and its armed wing recruited children or snatched them from streets and even classrooms before training them to kill members of rival tribes. If they refused to fight, they were “forced by threats of execution,” Mr. Withopf said.

“They knew that young children are very willing to obey military orders without thinking about the consequences, and they knew that young children are able to learn easily how to use weapons,” he said.

If the children still resisted, they were drugged with marijuana, Mr. Withopf said.

Defense lawyers contend Mr. Lubanga is a pacifist politician who was trying to restore calm in Congo’s lawless Ituri region.

In his opening statement, Mr. Lubanga’s defense attorney asked the court to suspend the hearing until an appeals chamber rules on a challenge to the court’s jurisdiction filed earlier this year. He also argued he had not had enough time to prepare for the hearing.

Presiding Judge Claude Jorda said he would rule on the request today.

At the start of the hearing, Mr. Lubanga, dressed in a traditional African shirt and matching blue trousers, identified himself to the judges as the former president of the Union of Congolese Patriots.

Asked by Judge Jorda about his conditions of detention, Mr. Lubanga replied: “Obviously, it is a source of frustration and humiliation, but I am attempting to keep my morale up.”

Prosecutors were to begin presenting evidence today and call a witness next week.

Three boys and three girls, one only 10 years old at the time, are cited in the indictment but have not been publicly identified. None will testify at the hearing.

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