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ICC conviction against DR Congo leader who recruited child soldiers

In the first international trial to focus on the use of child soldiers, a warlord from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been found guilty by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Thomas Lubanga was arrested in 2005 and brought before the ICC to face three charges of war crimes. The most serious of the charges was that during a rebel campaign in the north-eastern province of Ituri, between 2002-2003 Lubanga recruited children, some as young as 9 years old, to act as soldiers, bodyguards and sex slaves.

Mr Lubanga headed the military wing of the Union of Congolese Patriots. This ethnic Hema group fought a vicious war against Lendu communities in the region to gain control of the gold resources in Ituri province. During the fighting in this remote and underdeveloped area of DRC (which borders with Uganda), the court heard evidence how Mr Lubanga and his army colleagues formed a common plan to establish and maintain authority over the province. “This resulted in boys and girls under the age of 15 being conscripted and enlisted, and used to participate actively in hostilities”, an ICC statement confirmed. As leader of the armed wing, Mr Lubanga bore the responsibility for this recruitment of children and their involvement in fighting on the frontline. The judge also spoke of evidence which demonstrated that the children had “endured harsh training regiments and were subject to hard punishment”.

The verdict is the ICC’s first since it was set up a decade ago. The trial of Mr Lubanga started in 2009 and has taken this long because of difficulties in investigating crimes in the eastern region of the DRC. But despite delays and the unreliability of initial evidence, investigations continued, assisted by international co-operation. The verdict has been eagerly awaited in Bunia, the main city of Ituri, where families and victims are entitled to ask for reparations from the court now a guilty sentence has been delivered.

Human rights groups have welcomed the guilty verdict as an important signal to military leaders across the world that they cannot act with impunity. The case is also seen as setting a key legal precedent for those accused of similar crimes, including three other men who face charges over their actions during the violence in Ituri. Another high-profile accused on the ICC’s warrant list is Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Kony is infamous for his recruitment and use of child soldiers, recently highlighted by the documentary “Kony 2012”. Many will be hoping that following renewed pressure, Kony will be found and arrested, so he can be brought to justice in a similar way to Thomas Lubanga. Mr Lubanga is likely to receive the maximum sentence which can be passed by the ICC of life imprisonment.

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