The International Criminal Court announced Wednesday that it will soon deliver its first verdicts since being created 10 years ago, in the case of a Congolese militia leader accused of using child soldiers.
Thomas Lubanga pleaded not guilty to charges of recruiting child soldiers and sending them to kill and be killed in his country's brutal civil conflict. Verdicts will be delivered March 14.
His is the first trial at an international tribunal to focus solely on the issue of child soldiers and is expected to set key legal precedents for future cases at the court.
Rights groups welcomed Lubanga's prosecution, but criticized prosecutors for the narrow scope of the trial, saying they should also have charged Lubanga for numerous rapes that victims say members of his militia perpetrated in a region notorious for widespread sexual violence.
His trial started in January 2009 and was delayed as prosecutors clashed with judges over confidentiality orders attached to some of their evidence.
Lubanga is accused of leading the Union of Congolese Patriots and its armed wing, which allegedly conscripted and recruited children under the age of 15 and sent them into battle in 2002-2003 in the Ituri region of Congo.
He was indicted and sent to the court in 2006, becoming the first person taken into custody at the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal.
His trial was first delayed in June 2008, just 10 days before it was due to start, when judges halted the case because prosecutors had not released important evidence that could help Lubanga clear his name.
Prosecutors had obtained the evidence on condition of confidentiality from sources including United Nations staff, meaning it could not be given to defense lawyers.
The case got under way again five months later after the sources agreed to relax the confidentiality orders.
However, judges then halted Lubanga's trial and rebuked prosecutors in July 2010 for refusing a court order to release to Lubanga's defense team the identity of an intermediary used by prosecution investigators. Three months later, appeals judges ordered the trial's resumption.
The trial finally wound up last August.
Since Lubanga was taken into custody, the court has indicted several other higher-ranking suspects, including Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is accused of genocide in Darfur but refuses to surrender himself to face trial, and Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi who was killed by rebel fighters before he could be extradited for trial on charges of murder and persecution committed during his regime's bloody crackdown on dissent last year.
The ICC, which began its work in 2002, was established as a court of last resort to prosecute the most senior perpetrators of crimes against humanity and war crimes in nations unwilling or unable to put them on trial. It can only investigate in countries that have recognized the court or in cases sent to it by the U.N. Security Council.
For instance, there has been no investigation launched in Syria, where thousands of people have been killed in the government's monthslong military campaign to stamp out a rebellion by opponents of President Bashar Assad's regime, because Damascus does not recognize the court's jurisdiction and the Security Council has not referred the case to the court.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Assad fits the definition of a war criminal for the violence he has unleashed on his people.