Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court filed their first indictment on Monday, charging a former Congolese warlord for allegedly abducting and recruiting children as young as 10 to fight in the country's brutal civil war.
Thomas Lubanga was accused of forcing families to give up at least one child to his militia and abducting other children, training them and sending them to the battlefield against ethnic rivals in Congo's lawless Ituri region.
Deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said her office was citing six individual cases meant to represent "a significant number" of children aged 10-15 conscripted into Lubanga's organization known by its French acronym UPC and its armed wing, the FPLC.
She said as many as 30,000 children were recruited to fight by the various Congolese militias.
"The abuse of child soldiers has gone largely unrecognized and unpunished for too long," said Bensouda. Child recruitment is "one of the most brutal and morally troubling legacies of war."
Lubanga was arrested in March last year in Congo and transferred to the Hague-based court a year later.
He has denied all the charges.
The indictment will be argued at a pretrial hearing next month. If the judges find the evidence sufficient to support the prosecutor's case, the first trial by the world's only permanent war crimes court would likely begin next year.
Bensouda said the evidence against Lubanga was compiled by more than 20 investigators who made some 70 trips to Africa. The indictment covers crimes committed from July 2002, when the court was created, to the end of 2003.
Lubanga was charged on three counts: Conscripting children, enlisting children, and using them "to participate actively in hostilities.'' All are war crimes under the 1998 Rome Statute, under which the ICC was established, and are punishable by a maximum life imprisonment.
But Bensouda said investigations were continuing into allegations of murder and sexual offenses, and Lubanga could be charged later.
Court officials said that Lubanga had been provided with a computer at the court's detention unit in a Dutch prison to allow him to view evidence and help prepare his defense.
The indictment alleges that children were trained to kill members of rival tribes, "without any instruction to differentiate between soldiers and civilians.
Reluctant children, fearing to get killed during battle, were forced to participate in the hostilities by threats of execution."