Agonizing struggle for justice

The International Criminal Court has found former Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga guilty of war crimes. He recruited hundreds of children as soldiers and used them in fighting during the 2002-2003 conflict in Congo, judges ruled Wednesday in The Hague. It is the first verdict from the International Criminal Court, which began its work ten years ago.

In its first trial, the International Criminal Court has found former Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga guilty of war crimes. The 51-year-old, along with others in the armed conflict in eastern Congo in 2002 and 2003, recruited children under 15 as soldiers and used them in fighting, the three judges ruled unanimously Wednesday in The Hague. The verdict could set international standards.

The sentence will be determined after another hearing. Maximum sentence is life in prison. The court found the Congolese guilty on all three counts of using child soldiers. "Lubanga, as president and chief commander, was actively involved and responsible for this," said presiding Judge Adrian Fulford. 'He also personally used children as bodyguards'."

Lubanga, dressed in a white African robe, received the verdict with a deadpan face. Lubanga has always denied his guilt. The court will also decide on compensation for the victims at a later date. Defense may appeal verdict.

Kidnapped child
Lubanga was founder and president of the rebel movement Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and commander-in-chief of the UPC militia Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo. Judges say it has been proven beyond doubt that UPC militia sought to seize power in northern Congo's Ituri province and also systematically used children in military combat. Boys and girls under 15 were recruited or forced to fight, she said.

Witnesses, including former child soldiers, had testified that Lubanga's militia had taken children from their homes, schools, and soccer fields to military camps. Many were forced to fight with violence and drugs, they said. "Girls were also sexually abused and raped by commanders and soldiers," Judge Fulford said. He pointed out that Lubanga had not been charged with sexual violence. An estimated 30 are believed to have been involved in the fighting in Congo.000 child soldiers may have been involved.

Human rights activists hailed the verdict as a strong signal against the use of children in armed conflict. "This is a turning point in the fight against impunity for humanity's most serious crimes," said William Pace, coordinator of the Global Coalition, a network of more than 2.500 non-governmental organizations. Human rights organizations in Congo spoke of a "victory for justice and human dignity". Among the spectators was the American actress Angelina Jolie, who is campaigning for help for child soldiers. "This is the day of these children," she said.

Saved from failure
Lubanga had been arrested and transferred to the court in The Hague in 2006, and the trial began in 2009. Congo had referred the case to the Hague court itself. The court heard a total of 63 witnesses. 129 victims participated as joint plaintiffs. A total of 1.373 pieces of evidence presented. Due to procedural ies, the trial had been suspended twice for months and threatened to fail.

The judges also blamed the prosecution for the delay. Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo had not initially made all the evidence available to the defense. Judges had also rejected some witnesses as untrustworthy.

The criminal court began its work ten years ago. Tribunal is first permanent world court to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Investigations are currently underway on seven countries: Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, Darfur (Sudan), Kenya, Libya and Ivory Coast. The judges ied 23 arrest warrants, including one against Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

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