Thomas Lubanga was found guilty in March of recruiting, kidnapping and abusing children in his Union of Congolese Patriots militia — sending them to kill and be killed during tribal fighting over land and resources in Congo's northeast Ituri region in 2002-2003.
Lubanga's was the first guilty judgment passed down in the court's decade-old existence; Tuesday's announcement was the first time the tribunal sentenced a convicted war criminal.
Otherwise the mustachioed Lubanga, who cried when he was put on a plane from Congo to The Hague in 2006, is a small player among Congo's many belligerents.
Lubanga's case this year has brought increasing pressure for the arrest of his much more infamous partner in crime, renegade Congolese army Gen. Bosco Ntaganda. Ntaganda had moved on from being a militia leader in Ituri to being the No. 2 leader in a tribal-based rebellion in 2006, when the ICC indicted both men for war crimes involving child soldiers.
In late 2008, when the rebels reached the outskirts of the eastern provincial capital of Goma, Congo's government was forced to negotiate. A 2009 peace deal saw Ntaganda wearing the stripes of a general as he integrated his fighters into the Congolese army. President Joseph Kabila dismissed calls for his arrest under the ICC warrant, until recently, arguing that Ntaganda's cooperation was essential to keeping the peace in Congo's troubled east. U.N. peacekeepers in Congo who should have been arresting Ntaganda were forced to work with soldiers under his command.
Sensing the end of the road this year, the veteran warlord took off and now is accused of orchestrating a new rebellion that erupted in April with the defections of hundreds of the former rebels whom he had integrated into Congo's army.
Ntaganda denies any part in the mutiny, and the new 23 March Movement denies that Ntaganda is its leader. But a U.N. experts' report that accuses Rwanda of helping create and arm the rebellion, says Ntaganda is behind it and that new recruits from Rwanda are bedded and fed at a hotel Ntaganda owns on Congo's border with Rwanda.
In May, Human Rights Watch accused Ntaganda of again press-ganging children — this time for the M23 rebellion. The New York-based body charged Ntaganda had forcibly recruited at least 149 boys and young men in the first month of the rebellion.
Earlier in May, the ICC prosecutor had filed a request for a new arrest warrant against Ntaganda on additional charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for murder, rape, sexual slavery, and pillaging in an attempt to "ethnically cleanse" Ituri in 2002-2003.
At The Hague on Tuesday, Judge Adrian 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.
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 his victims. Lubanga did not offer an apology.
He showed no emotion as Fulford announced the sentence, which he can appeal along with the conviction.
Fulford said the time Lubanga has been detained since March 2006 will be deducted from the sentence, meaning the 51-year-old will be free before he turns 60.
Human rights activists hailed Tuesday's announcement.
"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," said Armel Luhiriri of the Coalition for the ICC, a private group that supports the court's efforts to end impunity for the world's worst crimes.
"International Criminal Court judges have sent a clear message to perpetrators of crimes: You will not go unpunished," trumpeted a statement from the ICC prosecutor's office.
Still, it indicated it was unhappy with the sentence. It said it was studying the judgment in detail to consider whether or not to appeal, and was expecting the judges' decision on reparations so Lubanga's victims "see the full scale of justice."
It also noted the latest charges against Ntaganda and added: "Those responsible for these crimes should be isolated, arrested and brought to justice. This is the only way to put an end to this vicious cycle of violence, reprisals and attacks against the civilian population."
Children still are being recruited in Congo; Ntaganda remains free; and the people of Ituri still are plagued by militias.
Lubanga's sister in Ituri, Angele Zasi, continued to insist on his innocence. "We (the family) are very disappointed," she said Tuesday. "Everyone knows that my brother is innocent of all that they reproach him."
Ntaganda also vigorously denies the charges against him. In a 2010 interview with The Associated Press he also said he did not fear arrest on the ICC charges.
"I don't think that the U.N. is able to arrest me in Congo because they have arms that I also have and that can protect me when they try to arrest me," he said. "If it is established that I committed crimes, I won't hesitate to answer them to a court in my country. But I will never accept answering charges by the International Court."
Ntaganda and others have accused the court of racism in pursuing Africans, and especially Congolese. Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir remains on the court's agenda along with Ntaganda and two other Congolese warlords. Congo's back-to-back civil wars that drew in soldiers from a half dozen nations killed an estimated 5 million people — more lives than any conflict since World War II.
Associated Press writers Mike Corder in The Hague and Saleh Mwanamilongo in Kinshasa, Congo, contributed to this report.