Opinion split in Ituri over rebel's indictment

Residents in the volatile district of Ituri in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo have largely welcomed the International Criminal Court's (ICC) indictment of rebel leader Thomas Lubanga for war crimes, specifically the conscription of children.

"This is good news," Christian Lukusha, head of the Rights Assistance and Protection Unit of the agency Justice Plus in Bunia, capital of Ituri, told IRIN on Tuesday.

On Monday, the court in The Hague said there were sufficient grounds for Lubanga’s trial. He is expected to become the first defendant to stand trial at the court.

Lukusha and a researcher for Human Rights Watch, Geraldine Mattioli, said although the indictment was an "important step", the court needed to go further against Lubanga.

"We still hope that other charges will be added in a future case against Lubanga and also other leaders of the UPC [the Union of Congolese Patriots]: massacres, sexual violence, torture," Mattioli said. "We also hope that the International Criminal Court will investigate high-ranking people who have supported, financed and armed these militias."

Lubanga, 46, was arrested on 17 March 2006 in Ituri, becoming the first suspect to be taken into custody, two years after the tribunal's prosecutor launched investigations into his activities during the conflict in Ituri. He was transferred to The Hague and remains its only detainee.

However, some members of his Hema ethnic group said it was unjust to single out Lubanga.

"Why only our leader and not the others who also committed crimes in Ituri?" Pascal Mateso, an Ituri farmer, asked.

The agency Espoir Pour Tous (Hope For All) said the court should issue another arrest warrant so that it is seen to be acting in an impartial manner and as a deterrent.

"This is a strong message from the international community fighting against impunity and for those who use or might want to use children in armies," Monoodge Munubay, spokesman for the United Nations Mission in DRC in Ituri, said.

The court needed the collaboration of Ituri residents to make their indictment, and some have said the court needed to protect witnesses and victims of brutality.

"They mentioned my name during the confirmation meeting despite an agreement that I remain anonymous; that has really caused me a great deal of insecurity. The Union de patriotes congolais of Thomas Lubanga has threatened me," said a reporter, who asked not to be named.

The court is an independent and permanent body set up to bring to trial suspects of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The Rome Statute, which came into force on 1 July 2002, governs its jurisdiction and functioning.

Lubanga, a father of seven, remained calm during the pre-trial hearing and often took notes. He has denied the charges and described himself as a patriot.

He founded the Union des patriotes Congolais in 2000. UPC members were mostly ethnic Hema who consider the neighbouring Lendu their enemies. He also set up UPC's military wing, the Forces patriotiques pour la libération du Congo, in September 2002.

Ituri was one of Congo's worst-scarred war zones. At least 60,000 civilians were killed, according to the UN. In addition to abuses committed by the UPC, serious human-rights violations were allegedly committed by other groups, including the Front des nationalistes et intégrationnistes (Nationalist Integrationist Front) led by Floribert Ndjabu Ngabu, a Lendu militia. Ngabu is in custody in Kinshasa but has not yet been indicted by the Hague court.

After his arrest by Congolese authorities in February 2006 following the killing of nine UN peacekeepers in Ituri, he was imprisoned in the capital, Kinshasa, until he was handed over to the ICC on 16 March 2006.

The court's pre-trial chamber ruled that there were sufficient grounds to believe that Lubanga was criminally responsible as co-perpetrator for the war crimes conscripting children into an armed group and using them to fight from September 2002 to 13 August 2003. The government welcomed the ruling.

"This decision is a move in the right direction and in line with what those in the DRC government have always wanted," Madelaine Kalala, the Congolese Minister for Human Rights, said. "It is a strong signal for the country in its fight against impunity. It is up to us to fight impunity here."

See also: ICC begins hearings in case against militia leader
Ituri warlord faces first trial at ICC in The Hague
Army captures militia commander
Who's who in Ituri - militia organisations, leaders
Former Liberian leader flown out of Sierra Leone; UN welcomes transfer

rp/fo/ro/jn/oss/mw