Thomas Lubanga, the 52-year-old Congolese militant convicted by the International Criminal Court in March for the war crimes of conscripting and enlisting child soldiers under age 15 and using them in hostilities, was sentenced today to 14 years’ imprisonment. The children were forced to fight a conflict in northeastern Congo from Sept. 1, 2002 to Aug. 13, 2003, where insurgents still terrorize the region.
The three-judge chamber that sentenced him also ordered that the time Lubanga began his detention, in 2006, till now to be deducted from the 14-year sentence. The prosecution had asked the judges to sentence Lubanga to 30 years in prison.
In deciding Lubanga’s sentence, the court said in its summary that it had considered the gravity of the crimes with regard to the damage they caused, particularly “the harm caused to the victims and their families, the nature of the unlawful behavior and the means employed to execute the crime; the degree of participation of the convicted person; the degree of intent; the circumstances of manner, time and location; and the age, education, social and economic condition of the convicted person.”
Adrian Fulford, the presiding judge, read the summary, which also said that conscripting and enlisting child soldiers and using them “actively in hostilities are undoubtedly very serious crimes that affect the international community as a whole.” He added that the “vulnerability of children mean that they need to be afforded particular protection that does not apply to the general population, as recognised in various international treaties.”
The court, however, took Lubanga’s “notable cooperation” into account in the sentencing. But one judge, Elizabeth Odio Benito, wrote a dissent, disagreeing with the “majority’s decision.” She said that it “disregards the damage caused to the victims and their families, particularly as a result of the harsh punishments and sexual violence suffered by the victims of these crimes.” She wanted Lubanga sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment.
The prosecution responded to the sentencing by saying it may consider an appeal. It is also awaiting the judges’ decision on reparations to the victims of Lubanga’s crimes. As to the sentencing itself, the prosecution’s office said that it sent a clear message to perpetrators of crimes, that “you will not go unpunished.”
The two-year Lubanga trial, held from 2009 to 2011, was the first for the court, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month and has a new prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, a Gambian sworn into office in June to replace Luis Moreno-Ocampo of Argentina. The court, based in The Hague, is the first permanent international judicial body to try people for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Court advocates say that the Lubanga case offers lessons in speeding up current trials and increasing efficiencies.
Lubanga was found guilty of using child soldiers in his army, the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, or FPLC in the French acronym, from 2002 to 2003 to gain control over the Ituri region in northeastern Congo, where he was born. He recruited children with others by giving speeches to local villages and youths.
Once the children were forced or seduced into joining his army, Lubanga trained hundreds of them, some as young as 7 years old, to fight, maim, mutilate and kill other local militias and foreign government troops and to also act as bodyguards for him and his top men. Girls who were lured into the entourage were often forced to become sex slaves, cooks, cleaners, fighters and spies. Many of the child victims were also drugged and beaten to conform.
Lubanga contended at the start of his trial that the more responsible leaders for the crimes were “being spared.”
In the conflict, the Lubanga militia claimed that it was acting on behalf of the ethnic Hemas in Ituri when it began fighting the Lendu ethnic group in 1999, a battle that also involved the Ugandan military, which occupied the area from 1999 until 2003. During this time, Lubanga’s group and others, Human Rights Watch says, were committing serious human rights abuses besides using child soldiers, such as summary executions, torture, rape and abduction.
The long, horrific conflict with the militias and foreign armies resulted in at least 60,000 civilians dead in the region, in what also became a contest for gold mines and trade routes as well as tensions over land and citizenship rights, which still run high.
Rights groups say that the charges against Lubanga should have included the other crimes they say he committed and that government officials were also not arrested for their role in the conflict, which continues today.
Yet many supporters of the court, including Stephen Rapp, who heads the Office of Global Criminal Justice in the United States State Department, say that Lubanga’s conviction will help deter the use of child soldiers elsewhere. (The US is not a member of the International Criminal Court.)
The latest terror in eastern Congo involves a Rwandan-born malingerer from Lubanga’s heyday, Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel who until recently was a Congolese general and mutinied to lead a new militia, called M23. Ntaganda, whose long-ago boss was Lubanga, has been wanted for war crimes since 2006 by the International Criminal Court for using child soldiers in the FPLC from 2002 to 2003. Human rights groups say that Ntaganda, whose exact age is not known by the court but is apparently in his late 30s, committed other atrocities that include a massacre.
The prosecution for the court said in a statement that it has asked for new charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes to be brought against Ntaganda; these charges are for murder, persecution, intentional attacks against civilians, rape and sexual slavery and pillaging.
A United Nations report recently said that Rwanda is apparently backing the recruitment of child soldiers for Ntaganda. An armed clash between M23 and Congo’s army last week in Kivu Province in eastern Congo killed a UN Indian peacekeeper caught in the middle. About 16,000 refugees have escaped the region, anticipating more intense battles as Ntaganda dominates the major cities.
[This article was updated.]