REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- The International Criminal Court in the Hague on Wednesday found former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty of using children as soldiers, the first verdict in the panel's 10-year history. He could face life imprisonment.
After a three-year trial, the court convicted Lubanga of recruiting boys and girls as soldiers during a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002 and 2003.
The verdict was seen as a major breakthrough in forcing warlords and politicians to be accountable for atrocities and crimes against humanity, sending a message that international justice eventually would catch up with them.
Three victims gave evidence during the trial, while others participated indirectly, such as by making submissions to the court. The evidence said girls forcibly recruited by Lubanga were used as sex slaves, while videos aired in court showed Lubanga surrounded by child combatants.
The verdict sent a clear message that recruiting and using children as combatants or sex slaves is a crime against humanity. Tens of thousands of children continue to be used in wars across the continent, according to humanitarian agencies.
The defendant claimed he had discouraged the use of children in combat, an assertion rejected by the court.
Other African leaders or warlords indicted by the court include Joseph Kony, of the Lords Resistance Army, whose activities in Uganda were highlighted in a video that got about 70 million views last week. (He is presently believed to be hiding in the Central African Republic.)
President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir of Sudan was the first sitting head of state to be indicted for crimes against humanity; he has evaded capture by limiting his travel to friendly countries. And the Ivory Coast's ex-president, Laurent Gbagbo, became the first former head of state to appear before the court after being indicted for crimes against humanity following his ousting from power last year.
Four Kenyan politicians were indicted by the court early this year for their alleged role in inciting violence after disputed 2007 elections in their nation.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Former Congolese rebel commander Thomas Lubanga, center, sits in a courtroom at the International Criminal Court in the Hague on Wednesday. Credit: Evert-Jan Daniels / EPA