Congolese warlord denies witness tampering, wants sentence cut

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Warcrimes suspect Thomas Lubanga of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on December 1, 2014

Warcrimes suspect Thomas Lubanga of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on December 1, 2014 (AFP Photo/Michael Kooren)

The Hague (AFP) - Former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga denied on Friday he interfered with witnesses in a case before the International Criminal Court, as he pleaded for a reduction of his 14-year sentence.

In its first-ever conviction, the Hague-based ICC in 2012 sentenced Lubanga to 14 years in jail for using child soldiers in his rebel army in the conflict-ridden and vast central African country.

Lubanga, 54, subsequently appealed the sentence -- which included time already spent behind bars since his transfer to the ICC's detention unit in 2006 -- but his request was turned down.

The former Hema ethnic militia commander was back in court on Friday to argue for a reduction after having served two-thirds of his sentence.

"At this stage I'm thinking with great emotion of my family and my children," Lubanga told the judges as his lawyers asked the court to review his time behind bars.

Lubanga's legal team asked for early release, stating their client had cooperated with the ICC throughout his trial.

They stressed that "part from exceptions, convicts are systematically released once they have served two-thirds of their sentence" in international justice.

Prosecutors asked judges to uphold Lubanga's jail time, saying the ex-militia leader had not cooperated and accused him of interfering, from his prison cell, with witnesses in the case of his fellow militia commander Bosco Ntaganda, nicknamed "The Terminator."

Ntaganda's war crimes trial is set to start on September 2.

"At no time did I have any inappropriate contact with anyone," Lubanga told the judges.

Referring to violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo's gold-rich northeastern Ituri region, Lubanga said "I sincerely wish to make myself useful to all those who suffered."

"For this I'm ready to devote to it, when the moment comes, my newfound freedom," he said.

Lubanga was sentenced to 14 years for war crimes, particularly for abducting children as young as 11 and forcing them to fight and commit atrocities in 2002-03 during a bitter ethnic conflict that gripped the region.

Rights groups said some 60,000 people were killed in mineral-rich Ituri between 1999 and 2006.