Judges at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday handed down their first-ever sentence: 14 years to Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga for enlisting and using child soldiers during a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In determining Lubanga's sentence, Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford said that despite undue pressure by prosecutors, Lubanga had been consistently respectful and cooperative with the court.
But he added that the sentence reflected the need to protect children in wartime.
"The vulnerability of children means they need to be afforded particular protection," said Fulford.
ICC's first conviction
Lubanga was convicted in March for conscripting, enlisting and then using children younger than 15 as fighters to gain control of the Ituri region of Congo in 2002 and 2003.
Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 30 years, saying his crimes were of "the most serious concern for the international community." But then prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo also said that he would accept a sentence of 20 years if Lubanga offered a "genuine apology" to his victims.
But judges blasted prosecutors for holding up proceedings and for failing to make a case for sexual crimes.
Franck Mulenda, a legal representative for 140 victims in the case, welcomed the sentence.
"It is very important. It consoles the victims," he said outside court. He said he is now waiting for the court to order reparations for former child soldiers, "so they can get back their education and their place in society."
Armel Luhiriri, Francophone Africa situations liaison for the NGO Coalition for the ICC, said: "This sentence sends out a stark warning across the world to those engaged in the use of child soldiers that their criminal actions will land them in prison."
But he added that "as important as this day is for the ICC and the victims it seeks to assist, we must not forget that Lubanga's co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda, remains at large despite an ICC arrest warrant issued against him".
About 60,000 people were killed in the Ituri region of eastern DRC between 1999 and 2003 in an ethnic conflict that set Lubanga's Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) against militias from the Lendu ethnic group, including the Congolese Popular Army and the Patriotic Resistance Force (FRPI) in Ituri.
Judges will deduct the six years Lubanga has already been in prison in The Hague from his sentence, which he has the right to appeal. But even if he serves his full sentence, Lubanga will be a free man in eight years.