Sunday, August 17, 2008

Hema Feel Vindicated by Lubanga Trial Crisis

Inside a Bunia neighborhood mud hut where one can buy a bowl of mandro, a murky homemade beer, customers say the International Criminal Court, ICC, was wrong to prosecute Thomas Lubanga.

Many in the hut in Mudzi-pela – on the side of Bunia that is almost wholly occupied by the Hema ethnic group to which Lubanga belongs – believe the delays and problems with the trial are a sign that the case was weak from the outset.

“[This] shows that the ICC cannot take control of the case. We can’t understand why they have postponed it so many times,” said one patron, who, along with others here, see Lubanga as a hero not a villain.

The trial was supposed to start on June 23, but judges have postponed it after concluding that the prosecution had withheld a “significant” body of evidence from the defence.

They consider the breach so serious that they will meet on June 24 to decide whether Lubanga should be released and dismiss the case against him.Lubanga, who is being held in The Hague, has been charged with recruiting children under the age of 15 to become fighters for his militia, the military wing of his political party, the Union of Patriotic Congolese, UPC.

Vicious clashes between the Lendu and Hema in the Ituri region of northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC, grew out of a civil conflict that broke out in the region more than ten years ago.

The decade of war, which has resulted in the deaths of more than five million people, according to recent reports, saw the toppling of the two regimes and the spawning of many ethnic-based rival militia groups in the eastern Congo.

The Ituri region has been the focus of ICC investigations since 2003, and has resulted in the arrest of four Congolese, including Lubanga, Germain Katanga, Matthieu Ngudjolo, and Jean Pierre Bemba, a senator and former presidential candidate.

Militia leader Bosco Ntaganda has also been indicted, but he is still at large in eastern Congo.Lubanga’s trial – which was the first to be prosecuted by the ICC – was originally scheduled to begin on March 31.

Various reasons have been given for the delays, including the failure of prosecutors to disclose to the defence all its evidence and the identities of witnesses testifying against the accused. To people in Mudzi-pela, Lubanga is a saviour who defended them during the decade-long civil war.

“Thomas came to our rescue,” said one woman. “We were running for our lives with babies in our arms. He came to help.”

She pointed to the dirt road outside the hut where she said five people had been killed.“People were trying to kill us. They were Lendu,” said another woman.

“Thomas [Lubanga] helped us so much.” The repeated stays in the Lubanga proceedings have drawn accusations in the region that a case should never have been brought against him.

“The [ICC is] telling lies,” said one man, adding that many Hema orphans had little option but to become fighters.

“Imagine the [Lendu] come and kill your family. It’s better to be a child soldier. Children were given a way of protecting themselves.”

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