A Congolese warlord accused of recruiting child soldiers is set to make history by becoming the first person to be tried by the International Criminal Court.
The Hague-based court ruled yesterday there was enough evidence to put Thomas Lubanga, in the dock for recruiting children as young as 10 to fight on the frontline of a war for the control of gold, diamonds and timber in the vast Democratic Republic of Congo.
A three-judge panel found "substantial grounds to believe" Mr Lubanga was responsible "for war crimes consisting of enlisting and conscripting children".
Geraldine Mattioli from Human Rights Watch joined a chorus of rights groups heralding the prosecution: "This is a crucial test for a young institution and a trial that deals with horrific crimes," she said.
Mr Lubanga, 46, who holds a degree in psychology, is accused of forcibly recruiting young children, training them in military camps and pitching them into a ferocious ethnic war in the Ituri region in northeast Congo that cost the lives of at least 60,000 civilians. He denies the charges.
Mr Lubanga's trial brings an end to a four-year struggle to establish a permanent war crimes court to replace the ad hoc tribunals that have been used to prosecute war criminals in Sierra Leone, the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The United States fiercely opposed the creation of the ICC, fearing its soldiers and citizens would be the target of what it claimed would be politically motivated prosecutions. But despite Washington's refusal to ratify the international treaty creating the court, 104 countries have signed up and the ICC is now investigating war crimes in Congo, Rwanda and the Sudanese province of Darfur. The court has already issued warrants for members of the notorious Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda and is investigating alleged war crimes in Darfur.
With its credibility on the line in its first trial, the court has been accused of failing to bring additional charges of rape, torture and murder against Mr Lubanga.
"It's a big problem from our perspective," said Ms Mattioli. "We have documented a range of crimes from massacres to sexual violence... we are disappointed by the narrowness of the charges."
The court must keep going higher up the chain to identify those who instigated and profited from a war that killed as many as 400,000 people across five years of fighting.
The indictment against Mr Lubanga, who faces life imprisonment if found guilty, lays out in detail how his militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots, known by its French acronym UPC, and its armed wing, the FPLC, seized children off the streets and thrust them into camps where they were brainwashed and armed before being set on the rival ethnic groups in a campaign of rape and murder during an 18-month period of a tribal war between 1999 and 2003.
"The children in the FPLC training camps were subjected to strict military discipline," the indictment reads. "A detailed system of severe sanctions for misconduct was imposed on them, including beatings, detention and execution ...
"FPLC commanders gave the children instructions to kill all Lendu, without any instruction to differentiate between soldiers and civilians.
"Reluctant children, fearing to get killed during battle, were forced to participate in the hostilities by threats of execution. Afraid for their lives, they obeyed the orders, and repeatedly killed Lendu, both soldiers and civilians."
At the height of the war up to 30,000 children were fighting in Congo's civil war.Reuse content