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ICC's first trial could start in 2007 - prosecutor

Written by: Staff

THE HAGUE, Nov 24 (Reuters) Congo militia leader Thomas Lubanga could next year be the first to be tried by the International Criminal Court if charges against him of using child soldiers are confirmed, prosecutors said.

But lawyers representing Lubanga, one of Democratic Republic of Congo's most feared militia chiefs, maintain the defence has not had time to prepare, and a leading human rights group said conditions for a fair trial might not be met.

The ICC was set up in 2002 as the first permanent global war crimes court to try individuals and Lubanga last year became the first suspect to be delivered into its custody.

''If the judges confirm the charges the first trial of the court will be conducted during 2007,'' chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said yesterday.

A hearing due to end next week will decide whether there is sufficient evidence for the case to go to trial.

Lubanga's lawyer Jean Flamme has accused the prosecution of withholding information necessary to prepare Lubanga's defence.

''The accused is not going to have the right to a fair trial if he or she does not have access to the means and modalities to present an effective defence,'' said Richard Dicker from US based Human Rights Watch.

Flamme should request more investigators on his client's behalf and the court should treat the matter seriously, he added.

Charges against Lubanga, leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), an ethnic militia now registered as a political party, relate to the period between July 2002 and December 2003, although the war in the Congo began in 1998.

According to the prosecutors' indictment small children recruited as soldiers by Lubanga were subject to systematic military training and severe discipline.

They often joined the militia because of their desperate need for food or desire to avenge their murdered families.

Moreno-Ocampo said his team was also investigating crimes allegedly committed by another Ituri armed group.

''We expect to request warrants during the first half of 2007,'' Moreno-Ocampo said without disclosing details.

The ICC issued its first warrants last year for leaders of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, who have led a 20-year insurgency that has kills tens of thousands.

Reuters SBA VP0542

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