AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Three witnesses who testified in an International Criminal Court case against a Congolese warlord must be allowed to stay in the Netherlands as asylum seekers, a Dutch court ruled on Wednesday, potentially complicating future war crimes prosecutions.
The three Congolese men, who are not named in the court ruling, have been held in the ICC's detention centre in The Hague since May 2011 following their transfer from a prison in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they were awaiting trial.
Dutch authorities at first said the witnesses were not eligible for Dutch asylum since they were in the ICC's custody.
"The state must inform the ICC that it is prepared to take over custody of the plaintiffs within four weeks of the signing of this judgement," judges said in their ruling.
Legal experts said the ruling opens the door for other witnesses brought before the ICC to seek asylum in the Netherlands, and could mean that countries that have imprisoned potential witnesses will be reluctant to hand them over to the ICC's custody.
"I'm very surprised by this," said Menno Kamminga, professor of international law at Maastricht University.
"It's essential that the accused or witnesses just have business at the court (ICC) and not take advantage of their presence here to apply to stay here. This makes the work of the ICC more complicated."
The three men were brought from prison in the DRC to give evidence as defence witnesses in the case of Germain Katanga, a Congolese warlord on trial for alleged attacks on civilians and use of child soldiers.
The ICC had promised to keep the three in detention and return them to prison after they had testified. Instead, the three men lodged asylum applications.
Two of them had been in pre-trial detention since 2005 in the DRC on charges of being involved in the deaths of UN troops. Another was arrested in 2010 on charges of high treason.
Even after five years, however, no formal proceedings had started against them.
Reporting by Thomas Escritt; Editing by Stephen Powell