DR Congo

DR Congo: Iturians question ICC head

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By Hélène Michaud

It might seem like just another village meeting, but the presence of armed police at the local parish hall suggests something serious is going on.

The residents of the village of Fataki have gathered to hear the president of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Judge Sang-Hyun Song, who is visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) this week for the first time.

A native son

This is Thomas Lubanga territory. The ICC's highest official has come to explain why the ex-militia leader, born in a nearby village and considered a native son, is now standing trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity 6,000 kilometers away in The Hague.

The 250 residents, local leaders and representatives of local associations listen attentively as he outlines why the ICC was set up and how it works. He lists some of the crimes tried at the court under international law.

"It is illegal to target civilians with military force...to terrorise civilian populations, to rape women and girls... to forcefully recruit children under the age of 15 into an armed force and make them fight."

Lubanga is accused of enlisting and conscripting children under 15 years old and using them to participate actively in hostilities.

Arduous listening

The crackling of the microphones, the buzzing of the amplifier, and the necessary translations, first from English into French and then into local languages, make listening arduous. Nevertheless, the villagers listen closely as the president, a former law professor, continues his calm presentation, carefully considering each word.

"I would like to stress that all of the accused persons are innocent until proven guilty. I am a judge. I have no opinion on the question of guilt or innocence at this time."

"La guerre"

It is difficult to imagine that this idyllic village, surrounded by lush rolling hills, was also involved in the bloody inter-ethnic conflict that swept the Ituri district in northeastern DRC.

Outside the red-brick village hall, which was once part of a Belgian mission, children carry bundles of freshly cut straw or play in the adjoining schoolyard.

"The ICC? Never heard of it," say their teachers.

One boy thinks it has something to do with "la guerre" - the war, which started in 1999.

Tight security

Although relative calm has returned to the region, small armed groups are still active, which explains the tight security surrounding the ICC president's two-day stay in Ituri district. Everyone who enters the parish hall is searched; inside, armed bodyguards keep constant watch.

Since the arrests of three former Iturian warlords, local support for the ICC has been far from unanimous. The international institution was nicknamed the "Iturian Criminal Court", as Iturians felt they were being unfairly targeted.

Local ICC staff and anyone else seen to be connected to the court received threats.

But the court's efforts to win the minds of the population are starting to pay off. Although local outreach staff continue to keep a low profile, they say threats have disappeared as more people begin to understand the work of the ICC.

Villagers' questions

The president's visit is part of that effort. It is now his turn to listen to the villagers' questions.

"What is being done about rumours that false testimonies and pictures have been sent to The Hague?"

Song: "I have full trust in the trial judges' watchful legal eyes to detect the truth or falsity of all these testimonies..."

The man asking the question represents a local civil society. Initially he declined the invitation to attend the meeting, fearing he might be arrested.

"We see massive destruction in Israel on television: why is this not also addressed by the ICC?"

Song: "The ICC has never, never targeted only Africans. The prosecutor is now making preliminary analysis on the situations for example in Afghanistan, Gaza, Columbia, and Georgia..."

"Why are the (Western) countries that shipped arms to our region not being prosecuted?" (Spontaneous applause in the audience)

Song: "I'm not in any position of making any comment on this because it is exclusively the job of the prosecutor to investigate or prosecute arms suppliers or not...."

The answers are clear and detailed, the tone is poised; the president must know that false rumours flare up easily in this part of the world.

After the meeting, the civil society representative says that he is really pleased with the very detailed explanations.

"People in the community had the wrong impression. If the trial takes place the way he says, I think the people will be satisfied."

There is disappointment among those who would like to see the countries who flooded the region with arms prosecuted:

"Do we have arms factories here?", someone asked.

Judges ask for training

While in the country, Song also met with military judges who told him that military courts in the DRC lack skills in drafting judgments related to international crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity.

"At the ICC you have all the experts, with lots of experience, and our judges will stand to gain from interaction with those experts in The Hague," they said.

Currently in the DRC, military tribunals have the sole authority to try international crimes. Colonel Nsimba Binyamwa, Deputy President at the High Military Court in Kinshasa, said that although it is still unclear which jurisdiction - military, civil, or a combination of both - will preside over war crimes, the ICC should ensure that magistrates receive appropriate training.

"We would like to become familiar with the working methods used within the ICC. It is not enough to read a compilation of texts on international law", he said.

Song said that the ICC did not offer training programmes, but referred Binyamwa to international institutions that do. He also underscored the principle of complementarity between the international and national jurisdictions, with the ICC prosecuting the "big fish", and the national courts small scale perpetrators.

Lubanga

Back at the village meeting, one woman says she believes Thomas Lubanga will be freed. "We used to live like brothers and sisters here, but outsiders came to ignite the conflict."

As she watches the video images of the Lubanga trial, she says: "He doesn't look like a prisoner, I think he's being very well treated. Otherwise we would have left the meeting in tears. I hope he comes back soon."

While the assembly continues to watch the video of the trial, the president of the ICC and his entourage are escorted to a helicopter in a nearby field - the engine is already running.