The International Criminal Court on Wednesday convicted Congolese militia chief Thomas Lubanga of war crimes for conscripting children into his army, the tribunal's first ever verdict.
Lubanga (51) was found guilty in The Hague of enlisting child soldiers as young as 11 to fight during a bloody four-year war in a gold-rich region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Rights groups hailed the verdict, saying it sent a strong message to other warlords still using children — 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,” said Judge Adrian Fulford at the ICC, set up in 2002.
“The evidence demonstrated that children endured harsh training regiments and were subjected to severe punishment,” Mr. Justice Fulford told a packed public gallery, which included Hollywood superstar Angelina Jolie.
A goodwill ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms. Jolie is known for her stance 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. A date for sentencing was not announced.
Lubanga will remain at the ICC detention facility. The conviction is “a sign that impunity does not exist any longer,” Human Rights Watch's international justice officer Geraldine Mattioli told AFP.