Congo militia leader found guilty in landmark first ICC verdict

The International Criminal Court (ICC) March 14 issued its first verdict, a unanimous decision that Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is guilty of the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities. The three-judge Trial Chamber I found that Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo established beyond a reasonable doubt that Lubanga, former president of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), coordinated and actively supported the enlistment of child soldiers into his Patriotic Force for the Liberation of the Congo (FPLC) militia, the military wing of the UPC believed to have committed large-scale human rights abuses in Congo’s violent Ituri district. Lubanga and his co-perpetrators designed to build an army for the purpose of establishing and maintaining political and military control over Ituri, a plan which resulted in boys and girls under the age of 15 being conscripted and used to participate actively in hostilities in 2002 and 2003. The court determined that Lubanga’s contribution was essential to the common plan, that Lubanga personally used children below the age of 15 as his bodyguards, sex slaves and fighters and that he regularly saw guards of other UPC/FPLC staff members who were below the age of 15. Lubanga requested a separate sentencing hearing under article 76(2) of the Rome Statute, and he is entitled to appeal his conviction within 30 days. He faces life imprisonment.

The Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is a landmark case for the ICC. Not only is the trial verdict the first issued by the court since its inception 10 years ago, but Lubanga was the first suspect taken into its custody. Furthermore, the case represents the first international trial focusing on the use of child soldiers. While other international criminal courts such as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have limited territorial jurisdiction over a set period and will be wound up upon completion of their mandates, the ICC is a permanent body and its decision in the case could for the first time set international legal precedent for others accused of similar crimes.

Lubanga was taken into ICC custody in March 2006, becoming the first DRC war crimes defendant to appear before the ICC. Lubanga was charged with enlisting child soldiers in his militia, and his trial began in January 2009 after being delayed for evidentiary reasons and was then halted soon afterward when one of the child witnesses recanted his testimony that Lubanga had recruited him for the militia. The prosecution concluded its case in July 2009 after presenting 22 weeks of testimony. Lubanga has maintained his innocence regarding the charges against him.

From Jurist, March 14. Used with permission.