Hague war crimes court to issue first ever verdict

THE HAGUE Tue Mar 13, 2012 11:23pm GMT

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THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The Hague international war crimes court hands down its first verdict, on a Congolese warlord, on Wednesday after almost a decade of work limited largely to Africa while major cases in the Middle East and Asia remain beyond its reach.

Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, 51, was detained six years ago and faces charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) over a 1998-2003 war, when tens of thousands were killed. He stands accused among other things of sending children into battle.

China, Russia and the United States, though they have not signed up to the court themselves, can use their votes on the United Nations Security Council to influence which cases it pursues. In practice, this means cases impinging on their interests are not pursued.

The court has not intervened over Syria, where Russia and Western powers are unable to agree a diplomatic approach to end President Bashar al-Assad's confrontation with rebels. Western rights groups and governments have accused Assad and his forces of crimes against the civilian population, while the Syrian president blames 'terrorists' for the violence.

The ICC, nonetheless, achieved a notable success in the Security Council referral of Libya's case and in the arrest warrant issued for Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the country's late leader. Saif has been captured but remains in Libyan hands.

Lubanga's case emerges from one of seven conflict regions, all of them African, investigated by the ICC since it opened in The Hague in 2002.

Lead prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo rejects criticism that the cases focus too much on Africa.

"Our office has a mandate to prosecute the worst crimes in the world where no one is investigating," he told Reuters. "The world is ignoring African victims. My office cannot do that. We are proud to be working the cases we are working."

"The good thing now is we are preventing crimes. We don 't need to wait for a new Holocaust to react."

Prosecutors took several years longer than planned to complete preparations for the Lubanga trial.

FAITH IN JUSTICE

On Wednesday, judges will determine Lubanga's guilt or innocence. If he is found guilty, Lubanga could face up to life imprisonment, although sentence will not be passed immediately. An appeal can be filed within 30 days.

Lubanga denies all the charges.

A conviction could help lend momentum to other prominent cases, such as that against former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo. Gbagbo is charged with individual responsibility on counts of crimes against humanity -- murder, rape and other forms of sexual violence, persecution, and other inhuman acts.

Raphael Wakenge, for the Congolese Coalition for Transitional Justice, investigated crimes committed during the conflict and says the verdict in the Lubanga case is important for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"We're expecting a lot from this process … Congo is coming from a state of war, and this verdict could give hope that there is justice," he told Reuters.

"We continue to think that we can't put much faith in the Congolese justice system," he said.

Lubanga said during his trial he was a politician who had no power over the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC), the armed militia of the Union of Congolese Patriots which Lubanga headed and to which he is accused of conscripting children younger than 15 to fight.

The trial lasted more than 2 1/2 years and was halted twice. Prosecutors and defence lawyers called dozens of witnesses. Among them were victims of crimes, technical experts and Lubanga's former colleagues.

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

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