It's a relatively light prison sentence that will stoke controversy in many quarters. By allowing its first convicted war criminal to be freed within eight years, the International Criminal Court is remaining loyal to the rule of law – but leaving itself open to fresh attacks from its critics.
Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, found guilty of recruiting child soldiers and forcing them to commit atrocities, will be out of prison by March 2020. The ICC today handed down a 14-year prison sentence, but gave him credit for the six years he has already spent in custody.
The historic decision in The Hague is a setback for the prosecution in several ways. Prosecutors had demanded a 30-year prison sentence, or 20 years if Mr. Lubanga apologized for his crimes and worked to prevent future crimes. Instead he was given a much lighter sentence, without any requirement that he apologize.
The warlord and his militia were key combatants in a nasty war in the gold-rich Ituri region of Congo that has killed an estimated 60,000 people since 1999.
The court heard testimony that his militia kidnapped children and forced them to kill and rape. Children as young as 5 were placed in training camps to be raised as soldiers, while young girls were forced to become sex slaves.
Mr. Lubanga's co-accused, Bosco Ntaganda, remains free today and is leading another rebellion in the Democratic Republic of Congo, allegedly with the active support of neighbouring Rwanda.
In the ruling today, presiding judge Adrian Fulford was sharply critical of the former chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo. The prosecutor had made mistakes, failed to provide evidence to support some of his claims, allowed his staff to make misleading statements to the media, and had put Mr. Lubanga under "considerable unwarranted pressure," Judge Fulford said.
The court had earlier ruled that the prosecutors were relying too much on "intermediaries" who may have coached the witnesses or bribed them to lie.
Judge Fulford, speaking for the majority on the court today, said the prosecutors had failed to prove that Mr. Lubanga ordered sexual crimes against the children that he recruited. But one judge, Elizabeth Odio Benito, gave a dissenting opinion, saying that the sentencing didn't give enough weight to the damage that the victims had suffered, especially the sexual violence that they endured after being abducted by Mr. Lubanga's militia.
Mr. Lubanga, dressed in a grey suit and tie, showed no emotion as the sentencing was issued. He has not said whether he will appeal. Six countries, including Britain and several other European nations, have offered to accept prisoners who are convicted by the ICC.
Critics will see the court's sentencing today as a damp squib, failing to justify the court's huge budget and lengthy processes. With 700 employees and a budget of nearly $1.2-billion, the court is often seen as too cumbersome and prone to lengthy delays. In the Lubanga case, for example, the warlord had been in the ICC's custody for more than six years before his case finally reached the sentencing stage.
The court is often attacked for focusing on weak African countries and failing to tackle the Middle Eastern allies of powerful states such the United States, Russia and China. The criticism is misdirected, since the ICC doesn't have full freedom to choose its targets without the support of the three superpowers. It has been unable to pursue Syrian leaders who committed atrocities in Syria this year, for example.
Supporters of the ICC said they welcomed the historic sentencing decision. They called it a "stark warning" to other warlords who attempt to recruit child soldiers. But some said the decision did not go far enough.
"Civil society organizations and victims still regret that the scope of charges was not broad enough, since other crimes perpetrated such as sexual violence, summary executions and pillage were excluded," said Andre Kito, a Congolese member of a coalition of civil society groups supporting the international court.
"We are also frustrated that sexual violence was not considered at sentencing as an aggravating factor due to the absence of any evidence presented to the chamber," Mr. Kito said in a statement today.