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Children on the Frontline

DRC Warlord Sentence a Joke, Say NGOs

KINSHASA, Jul 12 2012 (IPS) - Non-governmental organisations in the Democratic Republic of Congo province where Thomas Lubanga Dyilo used children as fighters in his militia in 2002 to 2003 have slammed his 14-year sentence as inadequate – and potentially dangerous.

The International Criminal Court sentenced Lubanga, a former leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots, to 14 years in prison for recruiting children during a bloody conflict in the northeastern DRC province of Ituri.

“Fourteen years is a joke. Taking into account the six years he has already spent in prison (since his arrest in 2006), he will serve only eight more,” Joël Bisubu, from the NGO Justice Plus, told IPS.

“For his victims – and their families – who agreed to testify in court, Lubanga’s return to DRC will spark fear of reprisals. It would be good for him to be tried for other crimes he committed in Ituri, in addition to the recruitment and use of minors as combat troops in his militia.”

Bisubu, a human rights defender, said he was worried by the idea that Lubanga could finish serving his sentence so soon. “Lubanga’s early return (to DRC) makes me afraid, since he could well return as a hero. Many people in his community feel that it was wrong that he was sent to the ICC in the first place, since in their view he fought to protect them.”

The conflict in the DRC’s north-eastern Ituri region, lasting from 1999 until 2007, initially involved the Lendu, a group made up principally of farmers who migrated from Sudan centuries ago, and the Hema: more recent arrivals in the area.
Fighting soon spread, however, to encompass other ethnic groups such as the Ngiti, generally perceived as loyal to the Lendu, and the Gegere, seen as supporting the Hema. The bloodshed claimed at least 60,000 lives.

Militias such as the Forces de Résistance Patriotique d’Ituri (Patriotic Resistance Forces of Ituri, or FRPI) and the Front Nationaliste et Intégrationniste (Nationalist and Integrationist Front, FNI) fought on one side, claiming to defend the Lendu and Ngiti – while the UPC took up the banner of Hema supremacy.

In 2004, the DRC government asked the ICC to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed on its territory since July 2002. An arrest warrant for Lubanga was issued in 2006.

On Jul. 10, the ICC sentenced Lubanga to 14 years in prison rather than the 30 years asked for by the court’s prosecutor. “Lubanga must benefit from extenuating circumstances, notably for having agreed to cooperate with the court,” said Paul Madidi, the ICC’s spokesperson in DRC.

The Office of the Prosecutor responded to the sentencing with a press statement. “By sentencing Thomas Lubanga Dyilo to 14 years in prison for the crimes of enlisting, conscripting and using children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities, International Criminal Court judges have sent a clear message to perpetrators of crimes: you will not go unpunished.”

But the Prosecutor’s Office also said it was studying the judgement in detail and waiting to hear the judges’ decision on reparations before deciding whether or not to appeal.

“Fear over Lubanga’s eventual return is very much a concern for our members and their families,” said Emilie Buza, from the NGO Forum of Mothers of Ituri (FOMI), a group which includes many direct victims of abuses committed by the FPLC.

“In 2003, we decided to come together to defend the interests of mothers in Ituri and we set up our NGO to defend the rights of victims of grave violations of human rights in court,” she said.

“We have produced many investigative reports which we have sent to the ICC and the United Nations. They all bear our names.”

Franck Mulenda, a lawyer for a group of victims whose identities throughout the lengthy trial have, for their safety, remained protected by code names, said the sentence is not that important.

“At this point, what interests the victims who have been involved in the case is not the length of the sentence handed down by the court, but rather the decision on reparations that will be handed down in a few days,” said the lawyer.


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