14th March, 2012
The International Criminal Court on Wednesday convicted Congolese militia boss Thomas Lubanga of war crimes for conscripting children into his rebel army, the tribunal’s first ever verdict.
Lubanga, 51, was found guilty of enlisting child soldiers into his militia and using them to fight in a gold-rich region during the bloody four-year war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which ended in 2003.
Rights groups hailed the Hague-based tribunal’s decision, saying it sent a strong message to other warlords around the world who forced children to fight, including fugitive Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.
“The chamber reached its decision unanimously that the prosecution has proved Thomas Lubanga guilty of crimes of conscription and enlisting children under the age of 15 and used them to participate in hostilities,” presiding Judge Adrian Fulford told the Hague-based court, set up in 2002.
“The evidence demonstrated that children endured harsh training regiments and were subjected to severe punishment,” judge Fulford told a packed public gallery which included Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie, known for her campaigns against the use of child soldiers.
First transferred to The Hague in 2006, the alleged founder of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and chief commander of its military wing, went on trial in January 2009. He had pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Prosecutors told the court that militia under Lubanga’s control abducted and conscripted children as young as 11 from their homes, schools and football fields to serve as soldiers, and that young girls were used as sex slaves.
Lubanga will be sentenced at a later stage, the court said. He faces up to 30 years in jail or, if judges decide the crimes were exceptionally grave, life in prison.
Lubanga will remain behind bars at the ICC detention facility in the nearby seaside Hague suburb of Scheveningen.
The rebel leader will however have 30 days to appeal the verdict once he has been given a transcript of the sentencing translated into French, a process which may take several months.
Rights groups hailed the verdict, saying it sent a strong message: “It’s a sign that impunity does not exist any longer,” Human Rights Watch’s international justice officer Geraldine Mattioli told AFP.
“It shows that these type of crimes will not be tolerated anymore. It is a very important decision for the victims,” added Sunil Pal, head of the legal section for the non-government groups’ Coalition for the ICC.
Alpha Sesay, international legal officer at the Open Society’s Justice Initiative, said the ruling would send a strong message to others who used child soldiers in their army, including Uganda’s Joseph Kony.
Since earlier this month, Kony, leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been the subject of an intense online campaign to bring him to The Hague, where he faces war crimes and crimes against humanity charges.
“This judgment will have an effect in Ituri (in the DRC). It will have the same effect in Uganda,” Sesay said.
During the trial Lubanga’s lawyers accused the prosecution of fabricating evidence with the help of intermediaries used to find witnesses, and claimed that individuals were paid to give false testimony.
Judge Fulford rapped the prosecution, saying it did fail in some instances to verify testimony organised through intermediaries.
During 204 days of hearings, prosecutors called 36 witnesses, the defence 24, and three represented victims.
The ICC has issued four arrest warrants for crimes in the DRC and is investigating seven cases, all in Africa.
Two militia leaders, Germain Katanga, 33, and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, 41, who fought against Lubanga, are now facing trial on similar charges.
Former UPC chief Bosco Ntaganda, a Lubanga ally, is yet to be arrested to face the court on war crimes charges.