PARIS — In its first sentencing, the Hague-based International Criminal Court
(ICC) handed a 14-year prison term to former warlord Thomas Lubanga for recruiting and using child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It's unclear whether Lubanga will appeal.
Rights groups cheered the Lubanga' sentencing, even though the jail term was far less than the 30 years prosecutors had requested.
"The trial and the sentence has sent a very strong message about the seriousness of the crime of recruiting children and using them in war," said Human Rights Watch's (HRW) senior researcher Anneke van Woudenberg.
Reading out the sentence, presiding International Criminal Court Judge Adrian Fulford gave Lubanga prison terms of 13, 12 and 14 years respectively for conscripting, enlisting and using child soldiers. Those sentences will be served concurrently, with an overall sentence of 14 years. Deducted from that term will be time Lubanga spent in pre-trial detention since 2006.
Lubanga worked as a teacher and trader before leading a rebel group in Congo's gold-rich eastern Ituri province. In March, the Hague court found him guilty of recruiting boys and girls under 15 years old and using them in war. In his sentencing, Judge Fulford underscored the seriousness of the crime.
"The vulnerability of children mean that they need to be afforded particular protection that does not apply to the general population," said the judge. "The principal historical objective underlying the prohibition against the use of child soldiers is to protect children under the age of 15 of the risks that are associated with armed conflict. And particularly they are directed at securing their physical and psychological well being."
Judge Fulford also harshly criticized the prosecution's handling of the case. Among other shortcomings, he said, it failed to prove sexual crimes were committed or that Lubanga had been involved in them.
Human Rights Watch's van Woudenberg also expressed disappointment in the prosecution.
"I do think the prosecutor should have brought additional charges against Lubanga. His group did not just recruit child soldiers and use them in hostilities, but they also carried out widespread massacres, torture and rape," said van Woudenberg.
Lubanga's is the first sentence delivered by the 10-year-old criminal court. Two other Congolese militia leaders, who fought against Lubanga, face trial on similar charges. HRW's Van Woudenberg said Lubanga's sentence shines a spotlight on yet another militia leader, Bosco Ntaganda, who is also accused of recruiting child soldiers in the Ituri region. The ICC has a warrant out for his arrest.
Photo Gallery of Child Soldiers
Experts estimate between 7,000 and 10,000 child soldiers operate in Chad in the national army, rebel and militia groups. Globally, the U.N. Children's Fund UNICEF believes there are some 250,000 child soldiers.
Seven child fighters are seen at a Save the Children compound in Bunia, Congo, June, 2003, after they left a militia army. Some 50 percent of tribal fighters in Ituri are children aged less than 18 years of age.
A young Sudan People's Liberation Army child soldier holds a gun during the demobilization of soldiers at Rumbek, southern Sudan.
African countries where the United Nations says armed groups have persistantly used child soldiers in the last five years.
A Save the Children report counted 33 armed conflicts, many of them civil wars, where children have been fighting. Save the Children is promoting a U.N. pact that would raise the minimum recruitment age to 17.
A Chadian army child soldier is seen in Am Timan, Chad. Chad pledged in May of 2007 to work to demobilize hundreds of child soldiers fighting in the ranks of the government army and rebel groups across conflict-torn central Africa.
Child soldiers take a rest as they wait for instructions in an ethnic Hema militia camp near Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, June, 2003.