THE HAGUE (AFP) - The International Criminal Court on Monday upheld Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga's conviction for using child soldiers in his rebel army, handing down its first-ever appeals verdict.
"The Appeals Chamber by majority confirms the conviction decision and rejects the appeal," presiding judge Erkki Kourula said at the court based in The Hague.
The ICC convicted Lubanga in March 2012 of war crimes, specifically for using minors in the conflict in the volatile eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.
He was found guilty of abducting children as young as 11 from homes, schools or football fields and forcing them to fight and commit atrocities.
Dressed in a traditional white African robe with blue embroidery, Lubanga listened intently as the verdict was being read.
The initial verdict marked the first-ever conviction at the ICC, the world's only permanent war crimes tribunal, since it opened its doors more than a decade ago.
The verdict was attended by Hollywood actress and campaigner against the recruitment of child soldiers, Angelina Jolie.
Four months later, the former militia commander Lubanga, now 53, was sentenced to 14 years for his part in a war in the gold-rich northeastern Ituri region, where rights groups say some 60,000 civilians were killed between 1999 and 2006.
Lubanga's lawyers appealed both verdict and sentence, saying his right to a fair trial had been violated because prosecutors failed to disclose evidence in time that could have bolstered the defence case.
ICC judges also failed to establish that soldiers younger than 15 were present in the military wing of Lubanga's Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), his lawyers said, referring to video footage of alleged child soldiers.
But judge Kourula on Monday slapped down seven grounds of appeal raised by Lubanga, saying that a common plan by UPC leaders to establish their dominance in the mineral-rich Ituri region "directly led to the crimes that are at issue".
Regarding an argument about video footage which showed children younger than 15, Kourula said based on the careful way trial judges scrutinised the images "it did not find the Trial Chamber's approach unreasonable", in concluding that child soldier were being used.
Prosecutors who had sought a 30-year sentence also appealed, saying 14 years was "too light to reflect the gravity of his crimes" including abuse of authority and cruel treatment and sexual violence committed against children.
Presiding judge Kourula rejected both the prosecution's call for a stiffer sentence as well as an attempt by Lubanga's lawyers to have his sentence reduced.
"Thus considering that none of the grounds of appeal was successful, the Appeals Chamber by majority... confirms the sentencing decision and rejects the appeals," the judge said.
Geraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch said the final verdict "puts a dent into impunity for grave crimes committed in Congo. Yet horrific crimes are still being committed in Congo, and the ICC prosecutor should continue investigations with a view to bringing new cases."
Lubanga's case has not been without controversy, with judges ordering in 2010 that Lubanga be freed after accusing former ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo's office of abuse of process for failing to disclose the name of someone who had interviewed witnesses.
That decision was also overturned on appeal.
The ICC said Lubanga remains "for the time being" in detention at the ICC's high security detention unit in a seaside suburb of The Hague.
Alison Cole, legal officer at the New York-based Open Society for Justice said the ICC's decision to reject Lubanga's appeal was a "victory for the prosecution". But, she added, the prosecutor's office would also want to "learn from their mistakes", at the end of their first-ever completed case, she said.