The International Criminal Court (ICC) has convicted a Congolese militia chief of war crimes for recruiting children into his rebel army – the tribunal’s first ever verdict – on 14 March 2012.
“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 said at the ICC, set up in 2002.
“The evidence demonstrated that children endured harsh training regiments and were subjected to severe punishment”, Judge Fulford said.
Prosecutors told the court that militia under Lubanga’s control abducted and recruited children from their homes, schools and football fields to serve as soldiers, and that young girls were used as sex slaves.
He had pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Lubanga was transferred to The Hague in 2006 and went on trial in January 2009.
He could face up to 30 years in jail or, if judges decide the crimes were exceptionally grave, life in prison. A date for sentencing has not yet been announced.
Lubanga will remain behind bars at the ICC detention facility in the nearby seaside Hague suburb of Scheveningen.
Present in the public gallery was Hollywood star Angelina Jolie, who is also a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Rights groups supported the decision, saying it sent a strong message to other warlords such as Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony who are still using child soldiers in their armies.
Kony, leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been the subject of an intense online campaign to bring him to justice for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Alpha Sesay, international legal officer at the Open Society’s Justice Initiative said: “This judgment will have an effect in Ituri (in the DRC). It will have the same effect in Uganda.”
The conviction is “a sign that impunity does not exist any longer”, Human Rights Watch’s international justice officer Geraldine Mattioli said.
“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.