The International Criminal Court (ICC) has found Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers during the final years of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s 1998-2003 war.
Lubanga, 51, on Wednesday became the first suspect on whom the Netherlands-based international court has delivered a verdict since it was established a decade ago.
The former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), an ethnic Hema group, was charged with recruiting and using child soldiers in northeastern DR Congo. He had been held at The Hague since 2006 and went on trial in 2009.
“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,” said Adrian Fulford, the presiding judge.
Al Jazeera’s Tim Friend, reporting from The Hague, said: “He will be sentenced at a later date; he could be imprisoned for life.”
Lubanga was alleged to have been the leader of the military wing of the UPC, known as the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). He denied the charges against him and said he was a political leader.
OTHER AFRICAN LEADERS ACCUSED OF WAR CRIMES AT THE ICC
– Jean-Pierre Bemba is accused of leading fighters in a campaign of torture, rape and murder in the Central African Republic.
– Former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo is charged with criminal responsibility for acts during the post-election stand-off in 2010.
– Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the desposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, is accused of crimes against humanity stemming from the Libyan revolt.
Prosecutors said that Lubanga’s role in the conflict was driven by a desire to maintain and expand his control over Ituri, one of the world’s most lucrative gold-mining territories.
They alleged that the FPLC under Lubanga’s control abducted children as young as 11 from their homes, schools and football fields.
No conviction for sexual violence
Carla Ferstman, director of Redress, a London based human rights organisation, said the ruling was an important one that might help discourage the use of child soldiers.
“We hope that this will have a deterrent effect in the DRC, the rest of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere,” she said.
The children were taken to military training camps, where they were beaten and drugged. Girls among them were used as sex slaves, prosecutors told the court.
In his ruling, the judge noted there was a lot of evidence relating to the rape and sexual violence against the girls that were conscripted into the army. However, he said he was unable to make any ruling on this because the prosecution had not included these charges when it initially filed its case.
Ferstman said rights activists were “disappointed” that no conviction had been made for the extensive sexual violence.
During 204 days of hearings, prosecutors called 36 witnesses, the defence 24 and three represented victims.
Lubanga’s lawyers accused the prosecution of fabricating false evidence with the help of intermediaries used by the prosecution to find witnesses, and claimed that individuals were paid to give false testimony.
Al Jazeera’s Haru Mutasa, reporting from the DR Congo, said there were areas of the country where Lubanga still enjoyed popular support that viewed the ICC with suspicion.
“There is a resentment towards the ICC, as they feel Lubanga was unfairly targeted,” our correspondent said.
“But for the victims in the east, they will be happy. Overall, there are mixed feelings over the case of Lubanga.”
The ICC, the world’s only independent, permanent tribunal to try genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, has issued four arrest warrants for crimes in DR Congo since opening its doors at The Hague in 2003 and is investigating seven cases, all based in Africa.
Lubanga is one of 20 suspects who have been the subject of arrest warrants from the ICC. Others include Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan leader, several members of the Sudanese government, including President Omar al-Bashir, and Joseph Kony, the fugitive Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Lead prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo has rejected criticism that the cases focus too much on Africa.
“Our office has a mandate to prosecute the worst crimes in the world where no one is investigating,” he told the Reuters news agency.