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14 Years: Too Much or Not Enough?

Dear readers – please find below a commentary written by Olivia Bueno at the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI) in consultation with Congolese activists.  The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of IRRI or of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

The announcement on July 10 of the first sentence handed down by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the case of Thomas Lubanga has sparked diverse responses in his home province of Ituri in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Although there are some that approve of the sentence, the decision has also been attacked from both sides. For some victims of the crimes committed in Ituri, the sentence that was announced by the court is not severe enough. For those that support Lubanga and those who view the processes of the court as compromised, 14 years is excessive.


Only few of those interviewed recently by our colleagues in Bunia expressed satisfaction with the verdict, saying that it accorded with their idea of justice. One man said, “He deserves this sanction as an author or co-author of the war, in spite of the long procedure…I am completely satisfied.” One woman said, “I am not a legal person, a lawyer, but I find this justice to be normal.”

These expressions of satisfaction, however, were overshadowed by the more abundant criticisms of the decision. It seems that the dominant dynamic is a debate between those who see the decision on the penalty as excessive and those that see it as insufficient.

Excessive Punishment?

For those who support Lubanga, or who were more generally critical of the proceedings, the sentence is a further reminder of the injustice of the process as a whole. Many in Lubanga’s political party, the Union des Patriotes Congolaises (UPC), were sure that Lubanga would be acquitted. For them, the 14 year sentence is a further disappointment.

Others criticized the decision for the same reasons that they had criticized the trial in general. For some, the key issue was the credibility of the trial process. In the words of one man: “I would have let Lubanga go because seeing the process from the beginning, it began with a lot of false witnesses…in my opinion, the process was not credible.” Another said, “I regret this conviction because the others who are implicated in the affair are still free. Why didn’t the ICC want to disturb other direct and indirect accomplices?” In the words another, “I think that this conviction is too strong because Lubanga was just engaged in self-defense. Without forgetting that Thomas is a small fish, but the big fish are walking around without being disturbed. 14 years is a lot.”

Despite the rhetoric of disappointment, however, the strength of the reaction was muted by the fact that the sentence was much lighter than what was suggested by the prosecutor. Indeed, some were eager to spin the sentence as a victory for the Lubanga camp: “For me it is a victory of the UPC over the previous prosecutor Moreno because he was politicized and corrupt. He wanted Thomas to be sentenced to 30 years, but the truth triumphed.” Others expressed comfort in the knowledge that not only Lubanga, but also his opponents were facing justice, “Happily the two others who are in The Hague provide a little bit of balance.”


Others raised concerns that the sentence is too light. For those who had hoped that the ICC would show itself as a force that could intimidate those who would consider committing similar crimes, the sentence seems weak.

In the words of one activist, “For us, the victims, this is a shock. This doesn’t represent our aspirations. How can we understand this verdict?” Some argued that the penalty would not be dissuasive to other potential perpetrators: “These 14 years do not represent much imprisonment in terms of the severity of penalties. This penalty is less than that which would be provided for the same types of crimes. For example, the in case of rape, the Congolese Penal Code provides for a punishment of 20 years in prison.” In the words of another man, “For me, 14 years is too little…so he is just going to fool around in this European prison where he is going to get fat…it is not like our prisons, which are death traps. The ICC has been joking with us.” Another victim, quoted by the Congolese NGO LIPADHO, said, “We are many who lives were ruined because of him. This penalty is not proportional to his capacity to cause trouble.” Another expressed anger, “He has done a lot of things in Ituri that everyone knows about, and today you condemn him to 14 years minus six… that is to mock us.” Another said that the Court had shown “how limited it is, the ICC must correct this error. Thomas doesn’t deserve 14 years in prison, he deserves 20, 25, 30, and even 50 years in prison.”

Others looked ahead to Lubanga’s eventual return: “Fear over Lubanga’s eventual return is very much a concern for our members and their families,” said Emilie Buza, from the NGO Forum of Mothers of Ituri (FOMI), speaking to IPS news service.

Given how divisive the trial has been in Ituri it is not surprising that the sentence has caused controversy. However, the reactions of Lubanga’s camp have been muted by the relatively light sentence. Indeed, many activists reacted by looking ahead and are more preoccupied with the issue of reparations, on which the Chambers have yet to rule. Because they directly address victims, they may have a greater impact on the ground than the sentence. In addition, there is an awareness that the sentence is likely to be read in conjunction with the outcome of the Katanga and Ngudjolo trial. Would a more severe sentence against Katanga and Ngudjolo be received with greater concern by the Lendu community in light of the relatively favorable sentence for Lubanga? Continued monitoring is needed as opinions settle over time.