The International Criminal Court sentenced a Congolese warlord to 14 years in prison on Tuesday; a turning point for the 10-year-old tribunal and a potential landmark in the struggle to protect children during wartime.
Judges found Thomas Lubanga guilty in March of recruiting and using children in his Union of Congolese Patriots militia, sending them to kill and be killed during fighting in Congo's eastern Ituri region in 2002-2003, according to the Associated Press.
Tuesday's announcement was the first time the tribunal had sentenced a convicted war criminal. Human rights activists hailed the decision.
Presiding Judge Adrian Fulford said at the sentencing hearing:
"The vulnerability of children means they need to be afforded particular protection."
Armel Luhiriri of the Coalition for the ICC, a non-government group that supports the court and its efforts to end times of non-punishment for the world’s worst crimes, 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."
Prosecutors had asked for a 30-year sentence, but said they would be willing to cut it to 20 years if Lubanga offered a "genuine apology" to the victims of his crimes. Lubanga did not offer an apology.
Wearing a gray suit and tie, Lubanga showed no emotion as Fulford read out the decision. He can appeal his conviction and sentence.
Fulford said that the time Lubanga has served in pretrial detention since March 2006 would be deducted from the sentence.
It was not immediately clear where Lubanga would serve his sentence. The court has no prison cells for holding convicted war criminals, but has deals with seven countries to jail them - Denmark, Serbia, Mali, Austria, Finland, Britain and Belgium.
Franck Mulenda, a legal representative for 140 victims in the case, said:
"It is very important. It consoles the victims," he said outside court. The court should now order reparations for former child soldiers, "so they can get back their education and their place in society."
Fulford criticized former chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo for not bringing charges of sexual violence against Lubanga, or presenting evidence of such crimes at a sentencing hearing last month.
Rights activists say Lubanga's militia and other warring parties in Ituri engaged in widespread rape.
The judge also praised Lubanga for being "respectful and cooperative" throughout the case, despite it twice being held up by prosecutors defying court orders linked to identifying witnesses.
Congo's Information Minister Lambert Mende said he thought the sentence was not harsh enough, but added:
"It is a punishment and I believe that it will haunt him for the rest of his life."
All those that support the efforts made to end the Invisible Children phenomenon can sleep a little easier knowing that strides are finally coming to fruition. We pray that the sentencing of Thomas Lubanga is only the beginning of the end of warlords exploiting children for their wartime efforts.