Arusha, March 14, 2012 (FH) - Human Rights activists and UN-backed organizations welcomed the judgment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which pronounced on Wednesday Congolese former militia leader Thomas Lubanga guilty of conscripting and using child soldiers to fight in Ituri (eastern Democratic Republic of Congo) from September 1, 2002 to August 13, 2003.

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A summary of the Court's decision was read out to Lubanga before a packed public gallery including actress Angelina Jolie. He sat anxiously, dressed in white traditional Bubu smock and hat, while listening to the judges and did not react when pronounced guilty. He will be sentenced on 18 April.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the verdict as "an important step forward" in moves to prosecute crimes against children in armed conflict.

"Today, impunity ends for Thomas Lubanga and those who recruit and use children in armed conflict," said the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy. "In this age of global media, today's verdict will reach warlords and commanders across the world and serve as a strong deterrent," she added.

In Kinshasa, the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC (MONUSCO), stressed that the judgment sent "a powerful message to the individuals responsible for grave human rights violations that they will be held accountable for their actions." Roger Meece, who is also the Secretary-General's Special Representative in DRC, then urged Congolese authorities "to pursue actively investigations and hold to account all who have committed human rights violations". An ICC arrest warrant was issued in 2006 against Bosco Ntaganda, a former member of Lubanga's militia. He is  currently a general in the Congolese army, under the protection of President Kabila.

Anneke Van Woundeberg, a Congo Specialist with Human Rights Watch was in The Hague. "It's a great victory for child soldiers in Congo and elsewhere", she declared. However, she added that she was surprised to hear the judges stating that Ituri's conflict had been a civil war. "It was clearly an international conflict involving Uganda and Rwanda", she claimed. "The Prosecutor should now go on with his investigations to find out who armed the militia, who financed and fueled the conflict. That should lead him to Kigali, Kampala and Kinshasa".

Other rights activists also criticized prosecutors for not charging Lubanga with sexual violence crimes, despite allegations that women and girls were raped and abused by his forces. "The Prosecutor's office must review its limited investigation strategy adopted in the Lubanga case," said Michael Bochenek of Amnesty International. "Lessons need to be learned for future cases."

Lubanga was jailed in Kinshasa in 2005 and transferred to the ICC in The Hague in March 2006. His trial began on January26, 2009. The judges had been deliberating since the end of August 2011.


© Hirondelle News Agency