THE HAGUE (AFP) — The International Criminal Court paved the way Tuesday for its first-ever trial, that of Congolese militiaman Thomas Lubanga, to start early next year after a months-long delay.
Lifting a suspension on the process, judge Adrian Fulford told a procedural hearing in The Hague: "We are provisionally suggesting Monday January 26 of next year for the beginning of the trial."
The prosecution indicated it would be ready by then.
Fulford said the reasons for halting the trial had fallen away, adding: "The suspension of the procedure is now lifted."
But he rejected an application by defence lawyers for 47-year-old Lubanga's release pending his trial on charges of abducting minors and enlisting child soldiers to fight in his rebel movement.
"He (Lubanga) faces grave charges and we are of the view that if released he is likely to attempt to avoid standing trial," the judge said.
"We are now in all likelihood very close to the date of trial, and the pressure on the accused will be at its greatest in the next few weeks."
Lubanga is charged with three counts of war crimes for using child soldiers in the armed wing of his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) between September 2002 and August 2003 in the eastern Ituri region of the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.
Humanitarian groups say inter-ethnic fighting and violence involving militias in Ituri -- centred on control over one of the most lucrative gold-mining territories in the world -- has claimed some 60,000 lives going back to 1999 and created tens of thousands of refugees.
The UPC is mainly composed of people of Hema ethnicity, accused of massacring civilians of other groups -- but Lubanga has rejected all responsibility for such killings.
He left DR Congo in 2003, after a European Union force was deployed in an attempt to halt the bloodbath. Lubanga was arrested in the Congolese capital Kinshasa in March 2006 after the country's president asked the ICC to investigate.
"This is a relief for the victims. They will now at last have the chance to see Lubanga respond to the accusations," Geraldine Mattioli of the Human Rights Watch NGO told AFP of Tuesday's decision.
Lubanga's trial, The Hague-based ICC's first, was to have started on June 23 but was stalled when the court ruled that prosecutors had wrongly withheld evidence that was potentially favourable to Lubanga's defence.
It found at the time that this failure had prevented Lubanga preparing a proper defence, with more than 200 potentially exculpatory documents, many of them sourced from the United Nations, not disclosed.
Many of these have since been made available to the tribunal under strict conditions as prosecutors attempted to have the trial reopened.
The case remained suspended while a final solution was sought.
In July, the court granted Lubanga's application for release, although this was delayed pending the finalisation of a series of appeals by the prosecution.
Fulford said Tuesday obstacles relating to the documents in the prosecution's possession "are no longer present," and the trial chamber had been able to examine "each of the documents in an intensive manner."
The judge was critical of the delays in the trial, but while the prosecution has "undoubtedly made mistakes," this did not warrant Lubanga's release.
The ICC is the first permanent world court set up to judge war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. It started work in 2002.
The court hopes also to start next year the trial of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, two other Congolese militia leaders accused of seeking to wipe out an entire village in 2003.
They are both ethnic Lendu, their FRPI and FNI rebel groups pitted against Lubanga's UPC.
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