JOHANNESBURG — The International Criminal Court has found Thomas Lubanga, the Congolese warlord, guilty of recruiting and deploying child soldiers.
It is the ICC's first verdict since the court was launched in 2002.
In a unanimous decision, the three judges in The Hague convicted Lubanga, saying he was responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers while leading the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) during a bloody five-year war that ended in 2003.
Humanitarian groups say an estimated 60,000 people were killed during the inter-ethnic conflict, centered on the remote, gold-rich Ituri region of the northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
"The chamber reached its decision unanimously that the prosecution has proved Thomas Lubanga guilty of crimes of conscription and enlisting children under the age of 15 and used them to participate in hostilities," Judge Adrian Fulford told the court, Agence France-Presse reported.
"The evidence demonstrated that the children were deployed... and took part in the fighting," Fulford said, according to AFP.
Lubanga, 51, who was arrested in 2005, will be sentenced at a later hearing. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
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The New York-based group Human Rights Watch described the verdict as "a first step in bringing justice to the tens of thousands of children forced to fight in conflicts."
“Military commanders in Congo and elsewhere should take notice of the ICC’s powerful message: using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead them to the dock," said Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, HRW's international justice advocacy director.
The ICC in 2005 issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony, the Lord's Resistance Army commander accused of war crimes across several central African countries, including the northeastern DRC.
“This trial has contributed to raising awareness about the recruitment and use of child soldiers in DRC, and also in other conflict-affected regions, as war crimes," Jean-Claude Katende, president of Congolese human rights group ASADHO, said in a statement.
"The conviction of Thomas Lubanga sends a strong signal to the perpetrators of international crimes that they will not escape justice,” Katende said.
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