The International Criminal Court in The Hague has pronounced Thomas Lubanga guilty of war crimes. The rebel leader recruited and deployed children to fight in jungle militias in eastern Congo.
The ICC's three presiding judges ruled on Wednesday that Lubanga was guilty of enlisting hundreds of children and forcing them to fight during a five-year conflict in eastern Congo until 2003.
"The chamber reached its decision unanimously that the prosecution has proved Thomas Lubanga guilty of crimes of conscription and enlisting children under the age of 15 and used them to participate in hostilities," presiding Judge Adrian Fulford said.
"The evidence demonstrated that children endured harsh training regiments and were subjected to hard punishment," he said.
Lubanga, 51, did not react as the verdict was read. He now faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. The sentence is to be determined at a later date.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the verdict as an "important step forward" in making sure that "perpetrators of crimes against children in situations of armed conflict are brought to justice." The secretary-general also called for a greater international effort in "holding accountable those who commit genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes."
"It is an historic moment and an important step in providing justice and accountability to the Congolese people," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) called on the ICC to impose an "exemplary" sentence on Lubanga. The Congolese justice minister, Emmanuel Luzolo Bambi, said his country hopes the verdict acts as a deterrent to "all of those who have chosen war and murder, so that all these people know that genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity will always be tried."
Lubanga allegedly founded the political group Union of Congolese Patriots and was the chief commander of its military wing.
Prosecutors said militias under Lubanga's control kidnapped children as young as 11 from their homes and forced them to become soldiers. Girls were used as sex slaves.
Lubanga was transferred to The Hague in 2006 and went on trial in January 2009. He had pleaded not guilty.
It was not only the Hague-based court's first ruling but also the first international ruling specifically focused on child soldiers.
The ICC was established in 2002 as the first permanent international court charged with prosecuting genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
It has issued four arrest warrants for crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The court is investigating seven cases, all of them based in Africa.
slk,ncy/pfd (Reuters, AFP, epd)