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Days of Impunity Could Be Over, Rights Activist Sees Lubanga Trial, Which Opens Monday in The Hague

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague Monday begins the trial of Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga on war crimes charges. As founder of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) rebel forces in Congo's eastern Ituri district, Lubanga is accused of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 to kill members of the Lendu ethnic group during the 1998-2003 war.

Many see the Lubanga trial as a test of the credibility of the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, and it comes a few days after the arrest by the Rwandan government of another Congolese militia leader Laurent Nkunda.

Richard Dicker, director of the international Justice Program at Human Rights Watch told VOA the Lubanga trial should send a message that the days of impunity for crimes against humanity are over.

"I think the significance of this is several-folds. First and foremost it ends the complete impunity that has prevailed for these most serious crimes in eastern Congo over the last 10 years, and I think suggests that the day of no accountability for such crimes is beginning to end. I think it will send some encouragement to others at risk in Congo that there may be justice for horrific crimes that they have endured," he said.

Lubanga has denied that he enlisted and conscripted children under the age of 15 to kill members of the Lendu ethnic group during the 1998-2003 war.

Like many observers, Dicker agreed the Lubanga trial is a test of the credibility of the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.

"I think it is essential for the credibility and legitimacy of this new permanent international criminal court that the trial is well-managed by the judges and that it is scrupulously fair so that Mr. Lubanga has every opportunity to mount a vigorous and effective defense to the serious charges that he's facing," Dicker said.

The Lubanga trial comes a few days after Rwanda arrested another Congolese militia leader, Laurent Nkunda of the National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP).

Dicker hoped Nkunda will suffer the same fate as Lubanga.

"The prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has announced that he is beginning an investigation of serious crimes committed in North Kivu, and I would expect that Mr. Nkunda could be a target of such an investigation," he said.

Bosco Ntaganda, the man who led the mutiny against Nkunda prior to his arrest by Rwanda was once Lubanga's military commander and charged along with Lubanga for war crimes.

Dicker said Ntaganda should be arrested by either Rwandan or Congolese forces and surrendered to the ICC to be tried along with Lubanga.

"I wouldn't be surprised that Bosco Ntaganda would be trying to position himself as an indispensible player in North Kivu and eastern Congo so as to bolster protection against arrest for trial at the International Criminal Court. However he postures and whatever steps he takes, however, he is still the focus of an arrest warrant and needs to be arrested by Congolese government forces or Rwandan forces and turned over for trial," Dicker said.

He described the opposition of administration of former U.S. President George Bush's opposition to the ICC from 2002 through 2005 as a low point in U.S. diplomacy when it came to justice.

Dicker said he expects the new Obama administration would be supportive of the ICC.