Because they have doubts concerning the possibility of a fair trial, judges at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, warned on Monday that they might throw out their first case, which has been long-awaited and was to begin next week.
It is Thomas Lubanga’s case, a former warlord in Congo who has been charged with recruiting child soldiers during the militia violence in Congo’s Ituri region in 2002-2003. They would discuss next week whether to release the defendant, added the judges.
Scheduled to open on June 23, prosecutors had hoped to use Lubanga’s trial to highlight what rights groups and others have called the widespread practice of pressing young boys and girls into war, as killers, messengers, cooks and sex slaves.
Arrived at the court’s prison in The Hague in March 2006, Lubanga’s case has been delayed several times by procedural problems, including disagreements between prosecutors and judges.
After tense hearing, on Friday the judges ordered the proceedings stopped. On Monday, they said, in a 44-page ruling released, that the prosecution had withheld “significant” exculpatory evidence from the defense. Therefore, they wrote, “the trial process has been ruptured to such a degree that it is now impossible to piece together the constituent elements of a fair trial”.
The United Nations and others issued more than 200 documents, on condition that they kept confidential. The court said that such secret information can be used by the prosecution only to generate new evidence, and not as part of the evidence at trial.
Prosecutors have been reprimanded by the judges for “misuse” of the material, who said they had planned to use “confidential” information in the trial, and that such information should have been disclosed to Lubanga and his lawyers, as well as the court. The United Nations had rejected requests for the court to review the documents, said the judges.
They said they had issued their ruling “with great reluctance”, particularly if this meant canceling the trial that would have examined issues “of significance to the international community”.
Arrested in Congo in 2005, Mr Lubanga has been held there for a year before being sent to The Hague. He has now spent three years in custody. Thomas Lubanga’s lawyers could not immediately be reached.