Next week, Thomas Lubanga, the International Criminal Court’s first convict and longest-serving detainee, will complete his sentence of 14 years in custody. Once released, Lubanga is expected to settle in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), but it is not known if he will immediately return to his home district of Ituri.
In 2017, Lubanga, said that if released, he intended to undertake doctoral studies at Kisangani University, located 800kms from Ituri, on the causes of conflict in his home area and that he expected his research to contribute to peace-building in the restive country.
Lubanga was transferred to the ICC’s custody on March 16, 2006. He was subsequently tried and convicted for conscripting, enlisting, and using children under 15 years in armed conflict. He committed the crimes while he was the president of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) and commander-in-chief of its armed wing known as Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (FPLC). Bosco Ntaganda, who was deputy chief of staff of the FPLC, was last year convicted on 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and handed a 30-year prison sentence.
Fadi El Abdallah, the court’s spokesperson, confirmed earlier this week to International Justice Monitor that Lubanga would complete serving his sentence on March 15, and “he will then be released unless there are national proceedings of which I have no information.”
In the years since Lubanga’s arrest, the UPC has turned into a formal political party and had some of its supporters elected as members of the national parliament. However, Lubanga has not cited political activity among his plans once he is a free man. Still, his party is preparing for his release. Pelé Kaswara, president of the political committee of the UPC, has urged party supporters to prepare to welcome their leader and said a commission had been established to prepare for Lubanga’s return.
In November 2017, ICC judges Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, Howard Morrison, and Piotr Hofmańsk declined to reduce Lubanga’s sentence, after determining that since the initial review of the sentence two years earlier, there had been no significant change in circumstances to warrant his early release. The judges also stated that they saw no reason to schedule a further review of Lubanga’s sentence, given that it would expire on March 15, 2020. Article 110 of the court’s founding law, the Rome Statute, provides for a sentence review when a convicted person has served two-thirds of their sentence.
In the first review held in September 2015, judges decided not to reduce Lubanga’s sentence after finding that there were no factors in favor of his early release. They found no evidence that he had genuinely dissociated from his crimes and also determined that Lubanga had not taken any significant action for the benefit of victims of his crimes. In the second review decision, judges ruled that there had been no changes in Lubanga’s cooperation with the court or in his actions to benefit victims.
Under Rule 223 of the court’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence, the factors judges consider in reviewing the sentence include “the conduct of the sentenced person while in detention, which shows a genuine dissociation from his or her crime.” They also assess the prospects for the resocialization and successful resettlement of the sentenced person.
In both the first and second sentence reviews, Lubanga fulfilled some of the factors that support early release. Both reviews found that, if released, there was a prospect for his resocialization and successful resettlement back home. Moreover, both reviews determined that there was no indication that Lubanga’s early release would give rise to significant social instability.
In December 2015, Lubanga and another former militia leader in Congo, Germain Katanga, were transferred to the DRC to serve the rest of their sentence from their home country’s Makala prison. A month earlier, Katanga’s prison term of 12 years had been reduced by three years and eight months due to his good behavior, cooperation with the court, and “genuine dissociation” from his crimes, which meant his sentence would end on January 18, 2016. However, Katanga remains in Makala prison because Congolese military authorities are pursuing a separate prosecution, which was endorsed by the ICC Presidency.
During the first review in October 2015, Lubanga pleaded with ICC judges to grant him early release, promising to promote reconciliation and offering “sincere apologies for all victims for the suffering they endured.” He said his actions as the head of the FPLC in 2002 and 2003 were aimed at lessening the “suffering of the community,” and he regretted that they were not sufficient to end ethnic conflict at the time.
At the time, Lubanga maintained that he did not intend to return to Ituri but planned to pursue doctoral studies at Kisangani University, in order to understand psycho-sociological determinants of conflicts, including by isolating stereotypes and prejudices that contributed to inter-tribal conflicts. He hoped his study would help Ituri and other parts of the DRC to deal with the related issues that caused conflict.
In the years prior to 2000, as fighting raged around his hometown of Bunia, Lubanga continued to go about his business of selling beans in the local market. But when a militia was formed to protect his Hema ethnic community against hostile neighbors, the educated and articulate Kisangani university graduate of psychology was chosen as its spokesperson, and shortly afterwards he became president of the UPC.
During trial, Lubanga downplayed his role in the armed wing of the UPC, but prosecution evidence showed he was effectively the commander-in-chief of the outfit that committed grave crimes and that he played a role in recruiting and using child soldiers.