THE HAGUE, Netherlands — A Congolese warlord known as “the Terminator” was sentenced on Thursday to 30 years in prison by an international court in The Hague for war crimes including murder, rape and sexual slavery.
The sentence was the highest ever handed down by the International Criminal Court.
The warlord, Bosco Ntaganda, 46, was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in July of 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in atrocities in a bloody ethnic conflict in the mineral-rich Ituri region of Congo in 2002-03.
Ida Sawyer, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, welcomed the ruling.
“Bosco Ntaganda’s 30-year sentence sends a strong message that even people considered untouchable may one day be held to account,” Ms. Sawyer said. “While his victims’ pain cannot be erased, they can take some comfort in seeing justice prevail.”
Mr. Ntaganda, who has always said he was innocent, became a symbol for widespread impunity in Africa in the seven years between being indicted by the global court and finally surrendering in 2013 as his power base fell apart.
His career spanned almost 20 years of fighting, first in Rwanda and then in an array of rebel groups vying for control for the coveted region of eastern Congo. He served as a general in the Congolese Army and as the deputy chief of staff and commander of operations for the rebel group the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo.
According to the prosecution, Mr. Ntaganda was one of the most ruthless and cruel of Congo’s rebel leaders.
His army had conscripted children and outfitted them with ill-fitting uniforms and AK-47s. Female fighters, some underage, were made sex slaves. He was also accused of personally shooting and killing a Catholic priest, and of being responsible for the massacre of a village, not sparing women or babies.
The court in The Hague first issued an arrest warrant for him in 2006 and another in 2012, but Mr. Ntaganda lived openly, seemingly untouchable. Then, he unexpectedly arrived at the United States Embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, in 2013 and asked surprised diplomats to turn him over to the international court.
One theory was that by entering the American Embassy, Mr. Ntaganda had hoped to save his life after feeling threatened by members of his own rebel group, known as M23. The group had splintered, and he and about 700 of his men had fled across the border into Rwanda.
He was also on a list of most-wanted men, and the United States government would have paid a hefty reward for his capture.
When he appeared before the court in 2013 for the first time and the judge asked him to state his profession, Mr. Ntaganda replied simply, “I was a soldier in the Congo.” He also told the judge and a room full of black-gowned lawyers, “I was informed of these crimes, but I plead not guilty.”
He testified for weeks in his own defense, saying he wanted to put the record straight about his reputation as a ruthless military leader, but was unable to convince the three-judge panel of his innocence.
The judges said he was guilty as a direct perpetrator or co-perpetrator of a string of crimes including murders, rapes of men and women, a massacre in a banana field behind a building called the Paradiso and of enlisting and using child soldiers. Child soldiers were raped by his troops and forced into sexual slavery, leaving them with lasting physical and psychological scars. Mr. Ntaganda himself used child soldiers as bodyguards.
The verdict, against a man whose power once made him seem invulnerable, sent a strong warning to other abusive commanders, analysts said at the time.
“When warlords see these convictions, they know they can be prosecuted,” said Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The leader of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of Congo, Thomas Lubanga, was also convicted by the same court in 2012 of using child soldiers. He is serving a 14-year prison sentence. Mr. Ntaganda was given a harsher sentence because he was convicted of far more crimes.
On Thursday, Mr. Ntaganda showed no emotion as the presiding judge, Robert Fremr, handed down sentences ranging from eight to 30 years for individual crimes and an overarching sentence of 30 years. He could appeal the sentence, the court said.