Thomas Lubanga, President of the UPC.

© 2003 Khanh Renaud

The International Criminal Court's decision today to proceed with the trial of a Congolese rebel leader accused of using child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo is a victory for victims and fair trials, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch urged the court to explain its decision on the trial of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo to the communities most affected by the alleged crimes.

Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court (ICC) lifted a stay on Lubanga's trial, ruling that the reasons for the stay "have fallen away," and scheduled the trial to start on January 26, 2009. The proceedings had been suspended because the prosecution had failed to disclose potentially exculpatory material - information that shows or tends to show the innocence of the accused - collected confidentially prior to the original trial date in June 2008.

"Today's decision assures that victims will have the chance to see Lubanga face justice," said Param-Preet Singh, counsel in Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "The judge's insistence on protecting the rights of the defendant also shows the ICC's commitment to fair trials."

Because of concerns that a fair trial could not be assured without access by the defense to certain potentially exculpatory information, Trial Chamber I suspended the trial on June 13 and on July 2 ruled that Lubanga should be released. But he remained in custody because the prosecution appealed the decision to suspend the trial - the basis for ordering his release. On October 21, the Appeals Chamber affirmed the decision to suspend the proceedings, but it reversed the decision to release Lubanga.

Meanwhile, the prosecution took steps, together with the confidential information providers, to remedy the lack of disclosure. Today's decision reflects the success of these efforts.

The suspension of the trial caused significant confusion and disappointment among affected communities in the Ituri district of northeastern Congo, where people were awaiting the start of the trial. Lubanga's supporters in Ituri have also sought to use the suspension as proof of Lubanga's innocence. It is vital for affected communities to have accurate information on developments in the case, Human Rights Watch said.

"Recent developments in the Lubanga case are both anxiously anticipated in Ituri and very complex," said Singh. "If the court is serious about making justice meaningful to those most affected, it needs to find effective ways of reaching them and explaining what happened and why."

Lubanga's trial will be the first trial at the ICC. It is now up to the prosecution to present an effective case and for the trial chamber to continue to guard defense rights scrupulously, Human Rights Watch said. The court will also need to provide ongoing information on the trial's progress to affected communities through targeted outreach campaigns.