The Hague, 14 March 2008 (FH) - The trial chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) deferred to 23 June the opening of the trial of Thomas Lubanga, former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) accused of war crimes for forcibly enrolling children in the militia of Ituri, in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

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This delay is partly due to a decision rendered on 18 January by the pre-trial chamber, which no longer implies that the victims have a direct link with the case being tried.

According to the registry, it needs to have new protection measures. The defence and the prosecutor have appealed against the decision. Lubanga has been in custody for more than two years.

Handed over to the court of The Hague in March 2006, the former militia leader had already been imprisoned at the central prison of Kinshasa for a year.

On 12 March, during a status conference for the preparation of the trial, the president of the chamber, Adrian Fulford, announced that "the entirety of the trial will be held in The Hague".

The Court planned to open the trial in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but in a correspondence mentioned by the judge at the hearing, the minister of justice of the DRC considered that the place selected by the court for the hearing was inappropriate, because that could lead toethnic tensions in the region.

According to a source, these hearings would have to be held in Bunia, in the region of Ituri, in eastern Congo. Hearings in Arusha, where the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is headquartered, had also been considered.

The prosecutor opened his investigation into crimes committed in the DRC in July 2004. To date, only three men have been handed to the court. In addition to Lubanga, a second trial concerning crimes committed in the DRC was currently at the preparatory stage.

The judges accepted, 10 March, to join the case of Germain Katanga, former chief of staff of the Patriotic Resistance Force in Ituri (FPRI), a militia allied with the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) of Mathieu Ngundjolo, handed to the court in February.

Several arrest warrants concerning crimes in eastern Congo are still under seal.

In addition, the prosecutor had announced, in February, that his investigations concerning the DRC related from now on to crimes committed in Kivu.

© Hirondelle News Agency