Former Congo warlord sentenced to 14 years over child soldiers

Lubanga

Former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga was ordered to spend 14 years in prison Tuesday for enlisting children as soldiers, the first sentence handed down by the decade-old International Criminal Court.

The “vulnerability of children mean that they need to be afforded particular protection,” presiding judge Adrian Fulford said as Lubanga listened, grave-faced, to his fate.

Lubanga was convicted in March after a three-year trial that centered on enlisting children to fight during a civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo nearly a decade ago. Human rights groups have also said his forces committed rapes, torture and killings, accusations that were not put before the court.

Prosecutors had sought 30 years in prison for Lubanga. The court handed him a lesser sentence after weighing “the lack of any aggravating circumstances” and his cooperation with the court. Lubanga, who was seen in videos alongside child soldiers, did not mean to recruit children but “was aware that in the ordinary course of events this would occur,” Fulford said Tuesday.

Six years will be deducted from Lubanga's sentence to cover the time since he first surrendered to the court, aggravating critics who called the sentence too light.

"Lubanga will serve less time than the [court] has been open!" Northwestern University international law professor Eugene Kontorovich lamented on Twitter.

Dissenting from the decision, Judge Elizabeth Odio Benito argued for a slightly stiffer sentence, saying the court should have weighed reports of sexual violence and harsh punishments suffered by child recruits. The court decided there was insufficient evidence to tie Lubanga to evidence of sexual violence suffered by female recruits.

The March verdict was hailed by human rights groups as a key step toward bringing war criminals to justice. Though other tribunals have been created throughout history to punish atrocities from specific conflicts, Lubanga was the first person to be convicted and sentenced by the International Criminal Court, created a decade ago to address war crimes in places where local courts are unable or unwilling to act.

Lubanga said last month that his conviction had hit him “like a bullet in the face,” arguing that he never accepted or tolerated recruiting child soldiers.

The Lubanga conviction has focused more attention on accused war criminals still on the loose, including Congolese mutineer Bosco Ntaganda and Ugandan militia leader Joseph Kony. Both are wanted by the court for allegedly forcing children to fight.

Ntaganda, who lived openly in the Congo after the civil war, defected from its military earlier this year. Human Rights Watch charges that he has since repeated the same crime he was accused of committing during the civil war, forcing scores of children to join his rebel forces.

Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, became newly infamous after the San Diego nonprofit Invisible Children created a video about his crimes that went viral. The United Nations Security Council recently gave the green light to a new African Union force to ferret out Kony and stop his militia, which has continued to terrorize civilians in the Congo, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles

Photo: Thomas Lubanga hears the first-ever sentence delivered by the International Criminal Court in the Hague on Tuesday. Credit: Jerry Lampen / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images.

 
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