Congo warlord pleads not guilty in landmark child soldiers trial

A Congolese warlord pleaded not guilty to charges of using child soldiers in battle as his historic trial got underway Monday at the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court.

A Congolese warlord pleaded not guilty to charges of using child soldiers in battle as his historic trial got underway Monday at the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court.

A bodyguard stands behind the leader of the rebel Union of Congolese Patriots, Thomas Lubanga, in this 2003 file photo taken in Bunia, Congo. ((Karel Prinsloo/Associated Press))

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 political party between September 2002 and August 2003. 

Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo told the court children as young as nine were taken from their families and told "their gun was father and mother and would feed and clothe them."

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.

Wearing a dark suit and red tie, Lubanga showed no emotion as his lawyer said he pleaded not guilty to using child soldiers. His lawyer is scheduled to give her opening statement Tuesday.

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.

Prosecutors showed videos in the courthouse of young men and children dressed in military fatigues and of Lubanga addressing recruits at what appeared a training camp.

Lubanga's militia "recruited, trained and used hundreds of young children to kill, pillage and rape. The children still suffer the consequences of Lubanga's crimes," Moreno-Ocampo said.

Moreno-Ocampo told the court that girls were particularly vulnerable and became "sexual slaves" when they hit puberty.

Activists are looking to Lubanga's trial to deliver a message to armies in Congo and elsewhere that use child soldiers.

"This first ICC trial makes it clear that the use of children in armed combat is a war crime that can and will be prosecuted at the international level," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.

The United Nations estimates up to 250,000 child soldiers are currently fighting in more than a dozen countries.

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.

A total of 93 victims of the violence will be represented and can apply for reparations.

Prosecutors plan to call 34 witnesses, including several former child soldiers. They hope to wrap up the trial within several months, unlike most international war crimes cases that tend to drag on for years.

With files from the Associated Press