Congo rebel leader a scapegoat, defence tells war-crimes trial

Defence lawyers for a former Congolese militia leader facing trial at the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court questioned the fairness of the proceedings Tuesday, saying his country's president sent him to The Hague to get rid of a political opponent.

Defence lawyers for a former Congolese militia leader facing trial at the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court questioned the fairness of the proceedings Tuesday, saying his country's president sent him to The Hague to get rid of a political opponent.

Thomas Lubanga, 48, faces six charges of recruiting and sending children under the age of 15 to the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots (UCP) political party between September 2002 and August 2003.

Defence counsel Jean-Marie Biju-Duval said prosecutors were fooled by current Congolese President Joseph Kabila into charging, Lubanga, the leader of a rival political movement in Congo-Kinshasa.

Biju-Duval also accused Kabila's father, Laurent Kabila, of having an army of child soldiers and said the court was making his client a "scapegoat."

Earlier, Lubanga's lead lawyer, French human rights lawyer Catherine Mabille, also accused the court's prosecutors of failing to turn over unedited evidence that could help prove her client's innocence.

Mabille said she still only has edited sections of some 5,000 documents.

"The defence needs to fine-tune its jigsaw puzzling skills" to piece together the evidence, she told judges. "How can we have a fair trial under these conditions?"

Children taken from homes, terrorized: prosecutor

On Monday at the start of the landmark trial, chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the court children as young as nine were taken from their families, terrorized, forced to kill, pillage, rape or be raped, at UCP training camps.

Moreno-Ocampo alleged children comprised up to 30 per cent of Lubanga's forces.

Congolese authorities arrested Lubanga in 2005 and flew him to The Hague a year later.

The trial was slated to begin last June, but was postponed due to a dispute between judges and prosecutors over accessing confidential evidence.

The hearing before a three-judge panel in The Hague marks the first international trial where victims will participate and is the first international trial to focus solely on child soldiers. It also comes more than six years after the court was first set up.

Lubanga has claimed he was a patriot fighting to prevent rebels and foreign fighters from plundering the vast mineral wealth of Congo's eastern Ituri region.

The first witness is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

With files from the Associated Press