THE HAGUE, 21 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - A Congolese warlord, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, made his first appearance at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Monday, on charges of conscripting children and using them to participate in hostilities during 2002 and 2003.
Lubanga, the founder and leader of the Union des patriotes congolais (UPC), was handed over to the court on Friday and transported to the Netherlands in a French military aircraft.
He is being held in the court's detention unit outside The Hague where the court has 12 cells available for accused persons. Lubanga has bee in detention in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), since August 2005.
"This is the first case in the DRC, not the last," Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court's chief prosecutor, said at a news conference in The Hague on Saturday.
Moreno-Ocampo said he planned to investigate further charges against Lubanga and to investigate other crimes committed by other militias.
"It is a sequence," Ocampo said.
At his court appearance Lubanga was only required to confirm his identity; that he had been well treated so far; that he was aware of his rights; and that he had been read the arrest warrant against him.
Dressed in a dark suit, with a yellow tie, Lubanga confirmed his name and age and told the court, "I am a professional politician."
Lubanga's temporarily assigned counsel, Jean Flamme, from the Belgium city of Ghent, told the court that he was filing a motion to challenge the 10 February arrest warrant, which had been kept secret until Lubanga left Congo; and that his client wanted access to all the documentation in the case, because he had been given no information about the charges against him over the last year.
Presiding Judge Claude Jorda set 27 June for the next public hearing, when the two sides will debate the charges against Lubanga.
"Three months are necessary for you to become familiar with the mass of documents," Jorda said, "in order to proceed on a fair basis."
The court's statute came into force in July 2002. Two years later, the Congolese authorities referred the human rights situation to The Hague to investigate.
The court issued its first arrest warrants in July 2005 against five leaders of the Lords Resistance Army operating in northern Uganda. The Ugandan army has said that the head of the LRA, Joseph Kony, is now in the northeastern province of Orientale.
According to the arrest warrant against him, Lubanga has been president of the Ituri-based UPC since its foundation in 2000, and he set up the military wing the Forces patriotiques pour la libération du Congo (FLPC) sometime in September 2002. The document also states that he had "ultimate control" of the policies and practices of these armed groups, including the enlisting and conscription of young children.
A statement from the Office of the Prosecutor says Ituri has been "singled out as being one of the most violent regions in the DRC", and that the FPLC "emerged as one of the militias which had committed the worst atrocities."
Moreno-Ocampo told reporters that as part of the evidence to support the charges, "We will show pictures of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo inspecting the camps where children from seven years were trained to be soldiers."
Moreno-Ocampo said the prosecution was ready to try the case, and that only a limited number of witnesses would be called to minimize the danger for those who testify.
The United Nations Children's Fund has welcomed the arrest, saying that it sends an important message that the international community would not tolerate the use of children in armed conflict.
"It is important to protect children from being recruited and used in armed conflict," Ann Veneman, the fund's Executive Director, said.
The director of Human Right Watch International Justice Programme, Richard Dicker, said the court had taken a first step to end the culture of impunity in Congo. However, he called for the court prosecutor to "press additional charges against militia leaders for massacres, torture and rape".
Other militia leaders from Ituri District, in Oriental Province, were also arrested in March 2005, and held in the same Kinshasa prison as Lubanga. They include Floribert Ndjabu Ngabu, leader of the Front des nationalistes et intégrationnistes (FNI).
The arrests followed the killing of nine Bangladeshi soldiers from the UN Mission in the DRC in a village known to be an FNI stronghold.
The FNI and the UPC, which are political rivals, have denied involvement in killing the peacekeepers and have accused each other of responsibility.
Members of the FNI are mostly from the Lendu ethnic group while those in the UPC are mostly Hema. Since 1999, tens of thousands of people have been killed and others displaced in the area that is rich in diamonds, gold and other natural resources.