- First conviction in ten years by the International Criminal Court
PUBLISHED: 08:20 EST, 14 March 2012 | UPDATED: 10:05 EST, 14 March 2012
A Congolese warlord was today convicted of snatching children from the street and turning them into killers in the International Criminal Court’s first judgment at the Hague in ten years.
The actress Angelina Jolie was in the public gallery to see Thomas Lubanga sentenced, as he sat wearing an ivory-colored robe and skull cap with his hands clasped in front of him.
The judges found Lubanga guilty of kidnaping youngsters from their families and using them as soldiers 2002-2003 in the armed wing of his political movement, the Union of Congolese Patriots.
Lubanga was ruled to have ‘personally used children below the age of 15 as his bodyguards’.
Ms Jolie was thrilled with the verdict. She said afterwards: ‘This is their day – where these children will feel there is no impunity for what happened to them, for what they suffered.’
Presiding judge Adrian Fulford said: ‘The prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that Mr. Thomas Lubanga is guilty of the crimes of conscripting and enlisting children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities.’
As he left court flanked by guards, Lubanga nodded and smiled to supporters in the public gallery. A sentencing hearing will now be scheduled. He faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
While the three-judge panel unanimously convicted Lubanga, it also harshly criticised prosecutors as ‘negligent’ for using intermediaries to deal with witnesses in Congo.
Under armed guard: Lubanga during a rally in the Congo in 2003, left, and Aime Dieudonne, right, one of the young combatants recruited to fight for the rebel Union for Congolese Patriots, also pictured in 2003
Fulford said three intermediaries ‘persuaded, encouraged or assisted witnesses to give false evidence’ and scrapped the evidence of three witnesses.
‘The Prosecutor’s office must review its limited investigation strategy adopted in the Lubanga case, especially in light of such decisions precluding victims from participating in trials and obtaining reparation,’ said Michael Bochenek of Amnesty International.
‘Lessons need to be learned for future cases.’
Amnesty also criticised the court for not charging Lubanga with sexual violence crimes, saying the decision potentially denied ‘justice and reparation to many more victims.’
However, other witnesses and video of Lubanga speaking to recruits, some of them children, at a training camp provided enough evidence to convict him.
Prosecutors said Lubanga recruited the children fight in a brutal ethnic conflict in the Ituri region of eastern Congo.
The trial, which began in January 2009, is the first at an international court to focus exclusively on the use of child soldiers and activists say it should send a clear message to armies and rebels around the world that conscripting children breaches international law.
The United Nations estimates tens of thousands of child soldiers are still fighting in conflicts from Africa to Asia and Latin America.
‘The guilty verdict against Lubanga is a strong warning to military commanders in Congo and elsewhere – using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead them to the dock,’ said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch.
The first verdict is a coming of age for the court set up to prosecute war crimes suspects in countries unable or unwilling to try them.
So far, prosecutors have opened seven investigations and have just five suspects in custody, including former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo and former Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba.
However, questions still remain about the its effectiveness. The court has no police force to arrest suspects and can only launch investigations in the 120 countries that recognise its jurisdiction, or if the Security Council orders a probe.
That means that the court is powerless to intervene in the bloody conflict tearing Syria apart because Damascus has not recognised the court and the Security Council is bitterly divided.
The inability of the court to have suspects arrested turned into a global online sensation last week with the release of the Kony 2012 video by American activists, which highlighted the case of notorious Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, the first person indicted by the court who remains a fugitive more than six years later.