A Congolese warlord accused of sending child soldiers to fight in a vicious tribal conflict was ordered Monday to stand trial, becoming the first suspect ever to face judgment before the International Criminal Court.
A three-judge chamber found evidence was strong enough to "establish substantial grounds to believe" that Thomas Lubanga was responsible "for war crimes consisting of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15," said presiding judge Claude Jorda of France.
Monday's decision was a landmark for the Hague-based court, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal, set up in 2002 to prosecute suspects responsible for atrocities around the world. So far, it has only Lubanga in custody in a special unit inside a Dutch jail.
Lubanga's attorney, Jean Flamme, is considering appealing, but said he would first have to study the ruling, which runs to more than 100 pages.
Human rights groups and authorities in Congo welcomed the decision to put Lubanga on trial as a major step for victims of the country's civil war and tribal conflicts, which left some 4 million people dead through fighting, famine or disease.
"We are very pleased with the confirmation of charges because obviously they are leading to the first ever trial at the ICC," said Geraldine Mattioli of Human Rights Watch. "It is a big development for victims in the (Congo) as well — their first chance for justice."
Congolese Human Rights Minister Madeleine Kalala said the announcement was "a strong signal for our nation to fight impunity."
Lubanga is one of many warlords accused of egregious acts over years of civil war and lawlessness in Congo. Most have not been charged with crimes.
He faces three charges of recruiting and deploying child soldiers in the bloody conflict in the Ituri region of eastern Congo in 2002-2003. He faces a maximum life sentence if convicted.
Prosecutors expect Lubanga's trial to start later this year but Flamme said he would likely need a year to build his defense.
"Equality of arms has not been respected," he said. "We do not have the resources and we do not have the time."
Prosecutors say Lubanga's militia, the Union of Congolese Patriots, known by its French acronym UPC, and its armed wing the FPLC, plucked children off the streets and forced them to fight. Other children volunteered to fight or were sent to brutal training camps by their parents.
In the ruling, the full text of which was not released, judges also ruled that neighboring Uganda and Rwanda played a role in the Ituri conflict, with Uganda occupying part of the region and Rwanda funneling weapons, ammunition and soldiers to Lubanga's forces.
Lubanga, wearing a lime green embroidered robe, showed little reaction as Jorda read out the decision Monday.
After the hearing, Flamme complained that Lubanga was almost in solitary confinement, and has contact only with former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Taylor is being held in The Hague ahead of his war crimes trial by the Special Court of Sierra Leone.
Flamme said Lubanga would like to have contact with suspects from the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, who are in their own detention unit in the same Dutch jail.
Flamme says Lubanga is an innocent patriot who sought to prevent the use of child soldiers and to end plundering of resources and bring peace to his mineral-rich region.
Lubanga was arrested in March 2005 by authorities in Kinshasa as part of a crackdown aimed at restoring order to Ituri in the aftermath of the slaying and mutilation of nine U.N. peacekeepers. A rival warlord was charged in the peacekeeper killings.