By Aaron Gray-Block
AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The world's first war crimes court concludes its debut trial this week against a Congolese warlord, a milestone for the International Criminal Court that has indicted Libya's fallen leader Muammar Gaddafi.
It may have taken two years, but the end of the trial of Thomas Lubanga, 50, on charges of conscripting child soldiers in a 1998-2003 conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo suggests the ICC is able to hear even the trickiest of cases.
The ICC issued warrants in June for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi on charges of crimes against humanity for their role in the killing of civilian protesters at the start of a six-month uprising.
"It is the first ICC trial finally coming to an end and it's evidence that the ICC can conduct trials, despite the fact it has taken a considerably long time," said Mariana Pena at the Federation for Human Rights, an NGO, in The Hague.
Prosecution and defense lawyers in the Lubanga case will conclude their arguments on Thursday and Friday before a three-judge panel retires to consider their verdict.
They expect a judgment in early 2012 because the judges' terms end in March. A decision on reparations to victims and a potential appeals ruling could take another year.
Lubanga, an ethnic Hema, has denied charges he enlisted and conscripted children under 15, some as young as nine years old, to his Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) movement to kill members of the rival Lendu tribe in the DRC.
He says he was a politician rather than a warlord, and had never played an active role in the UPC'S militia.
His trial has posed problems for the ICC, which has been forced to look into ways of shielding witnesses while giving testimony and how to share material which could endanger sources if presented to the defense because it reveals their identities.
The trial was delayed for six months when prosecutors refused to release evidence to the defense, prompting criticism that Lubanga was being denied a fair trial.
Prosecutors later released documents provided by the United Nations on condition of confidentiality to protect the sources.
Alison Cole, writing for the Open Society Justice Initiative which monitors ICC cases, said important lessons had been learned in managing evidence.
"Disclosure obligations are non-negotiable and there are positive signs that lessons with respect to evidence management are being internalized within the court, given the absence of this matter arising to the same degree in other ICC cases."
Lubanga's trial is the first war crimes case to focus solely on the use of child soldiers. Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said at the start of the case that Lubanga's armed group recruited "hundreds of children to kill, pillage and rape."
More than 30,000 child soldiers were recruited during the Congo conflict, according to some estimates. One girl told the court she was conscripted at the age of 13 and repeatedly sexually assaulted by her commanders.
Defense lawyer Jean-Marie Biju-Duval has argued that Lubanga is being tried as a political scapegoat and that other leaders of the UPC and DRC president Joseph Kabila bear greater responsibility for war crimes.
The defense also argued that child soldiers who testified against Lubanga invented stories and suggested that they had been coached or bribed to give false evidence about the UPC.
The first child soldier who was called as a witness in 2009 gave his testimony in court with Lubanga present and said he had been told what to say by a humanitarian aid group.
The incident forced the court to examine new ways of shielding witnesses and two weeks later, the same boy told the court he was forced into the UPC at the age of "about 11," adding he was trained to use weapons and took part in battles.
(Reporting by Aaron Gray-Block; editing by Elizabeth Piper)