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International Criminal Court Begins First Trial Today

The New York Times reports:

More than six years after openings its doors, the International Criminal Court in The Hague began its first trial Monday, as Thomas Lubanga, a former Congolese warlord, took his seat in the dock, facing a crowded court and public gallery.
Mr. Lubanga, 48, once the leader of a powerful and violent militia, is accused of war crimes, including commandeering children under the age of 15 and sending them into war to maim and kill. He pleaded not guilty to the crimes, which prosecutors said occurred in 2002-2003 during ethnic fighting in the Ituri region of Eastern Congo.

Supporters of the court have hailed the long-awaited trial as a momentous step for the tribunal, created to try large-scale human rights violations, while critics contend it has been too long in coming. Both sides see the trial as a test case that will be closely watched by lobbyists and human rights activists.

Long delays, bitter legal squabbles and irritation among the trial judges had almost torpedoed the case. Last July, as the trial was about to start, judges put a halt to the proceedings, citing legal and strategic errors by the prosecution, and said Mr. Lubanga should be set free, though he was ultimately kept in custody. The judges said the prosecution’s handling of evidence amounted to “wholesale and serious abuse” and ruled that at that point a fair trial was not possible.

Now that the judges have given their green light and errors have been redressed, Mr. Lubanga will be tried by three international judges in a process that is expected to go on until the end of this year.

Prosecutors will start their case calling on close to 40 witnesses, nine of them young men and women who were themselves former child soldiers.

This a a very important trial for the legitimacy of the Court. It will undoubtedly be followed closely by the United States, and its outcome could have an effect on the Obama Administration’s policy toward the Court.

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.