On trial … Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga seen behind his lawyers in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Photo: Reuters
AMSTERDAM: In its first ever ruling, the International Criminal Court has found Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese rebel leader, guilty of war crimes for using child soldiers.
Lubanga, 51, conscripted children under the age of 15 as fighters for his Union of Congolese Patriots rebel group between September 2002 and August 2003, presiding Judge Adrian Fulford said at the court in The Hague yesterday.
Lubanga, who has said he's innocent, faces a life sentence when judges decide on his sentence in a separate hearing.
The fighting between Lubanga's Hema ethnic group and Lendu rivals, in which thousands of people were killed, was one of several conflicts that took place during Congo's two civil wars between 1996 and 2003.
Actress and activist Angelina Jolie watched the hearing from the public gallery and said the verdict was a victory for the former child soldiers.
''This is their day - where these children will feel there is no impunity for what happened to them, for what they suffered,'' Jolie said.
The court's first verdict controversially came 10 years after it opened with promises to hold tyrants to account and provide justice for victims of crimes against humanity.
Lubanga learned his fate after more than 200 days in court.
The length of the case has fed criticism the ICC is cumbersome and offers poor value for money.
With 700 employees, the ICC's budget for its first decade has been €900 million ($1.12 billion), mostly paid for by its 120 member states.
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It took seven years to start the first trial, when Lubanga, 51, entered the dock in January 2009 accused of conscripting child soldiers to fight for Congolese rebels.
Though he was a relatively small player in Congo's conflict, his case could set a precedent for the likes of Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Ugandan group the Lord's Resistance Army - and the subject of an internet viral video campaign - who remains at large.
Before the verdict, the chief ICC prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, lauded the court as a ''respected global institution''.
''When I started, people said we could not do it, we would never have a case in court,'' he said.
''We now investigate in seven countries, we have people in prison, we are a court.''
But critics say the court is falling well short of the expectations that greeted its inception in July 2002. ''We are relieved to get to this point, but the prosecutor is woefully behind schedule,'' said a professor of international law at Middlesex University, William Schabas.
''We are still waiting for the big legal judgments of the kind we had at the Yugoslav, Rwanda and Sierra Leone tribunals,'' he added, referring to the temporary United Nations-created courts that preceded the ICC.
Global legal experts have criticised Mr Moreno Ocampo for prosecuting only losing parties in conflicts and for focusing on Africa, where all of its 15 cases are based.
''He avoided situations where he would be likely to step on the toes of permanent members of the Security Council, from Afghanistan to Gaza, to Iraq, to Colombia,'' Dr Schabas said.
Bloomberg; Telegraph, London; Agence France-Presse