Pool photo by Jerry Lampen
Thomas Lubanga, right, at the International Criminal Court at The Hague on Tuesday.
By MARLISE SIMONS
PARIS — The International Criminal Court in The Hague sentenced a Congolese warlord to 14 years in prison for using child soldiers in his rebel army in 2002 and 2003. The sentence was the first imposed by the court in its history.
Thomas Lubanga, a former psychologist turned warlord, was found guilty in March of “widespread” use of girls and boys under the age of 15, recruiting them in his militia and sending them to kill and terrorize villagers in the Ituri region of Congo.
The presiding judge, Adrian Fulford, said on Tuesday that the sentence reflected the need to protect children. But the sentence was far short of the 30 years the prosecution had requested.
Mr. Lubanga will receive credit for the six years he has already spent in custody in The Hague, so the sentence means that he has eight years still to serve. This may be further reduced because of a common practice of releasing well-behaved prisoners after they have served two-thirds of their sentence; in Mr. Lubanga’s case, that would free him in about 3 1/2 years. Judge Fulford made a point of praising Mr. Lubanga for his conduct and cooperation in court.
The sentence, which came after a halting three-year trial, confirmed that using children in war is a grave international crime, and drew renewed attention to another suspect wanted by the court: Joseph Kony, the leader of the dwindling Lord’s Resistance Army, which for years abducted children and turned them into soldiers as it rampaged through at least four Central African countries.
But the case also underscored the teething problems at the world’s first permanent international criminal court, which was created in 1998 and opened in The Hague in 2002. Though 121 nations recognize its jurisdiction, three major ones — the United States, China and Russia — do not.
Many war crimes trials have been held over the past 15 years in temporary international courts created for specific conflicts, including those in Rwanda, Sierra Leone and the former Yugoslavia. But the International Criminal Court is the first permanent tribunal with a continuing mandate to investigate atrocities in countries under its jurisdiction when national courts are unwilling or unable to act.
In an unusual statement in international proceedings, Judge Fulford, a Briton who led the panel of three judges, sharply criticized the former prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, saying he had made a number of errors, had failed to submit evidence to support his claims and had allowed his staff to give misleading statements to reporters.
In an earlier hearing, the judge said the prosecutor had failed to bring charges of sexual violence. Human rights groups said that girl soldiers had been widely abused and that Mr. Lubanga’s militia had practiced widespread rape.
Twice during the trial, Judge Fulford halted the proceedings and ordered Mr. Lubanga released because of prosecutors’ errors in dealing with evidence and refusal to follow orders from the bench, which he said were making a fair trial impossible.
Both times, appeals judges ordered that the trial be resumed and the errors corrected.
One of the three judges in the panel, Elizabeth Odio Benito of Costa Rica, dissented from the sentencing decision on Tuesday, saying 14 years was too lenient in proportion to the harm done to the victims and their families. She she singled out sexual violence and said the sentence should have been 15 years.
Although a number of states — including Austria, Belgium, Britain, Denmark, Finland and Serbia — have agreed to accept convicts from the court for imprisonment, it was not clear where Mr. Lubanga would serve his sentence. He may be kept in The Hague during possible appeals by his lawyers or by the prosecution.
The court also allows for reparations for victims or their communities, but that issue was not addressed on Tuesday. Human rights groups that help child soldiers return to civilian society have said that the children’s problems linger for years because of the profound effects of wartime violence and the widespread use of drugs to make them obedient and fearless. Several groups run reintegration programs in Africa, where child soldiers have been used in conflicts in at least a half-dozen countries over the past decade.