March 2, 2021

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Dominic Ongwen convicted of war crimes for Uganda’s LRA rebels

Ex-Ugandan rebel commander Dominic Ongwen has been convicted of war crimes at the International Criminal Court.

Thursday’s historic ruling also saw him convicted of forced pregnancy – a legal first in an international court.

Ongwen, a feared commander of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is the first member of the LRA to appear before the court.

He was convicted on 61 of the 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes he faced.

The charges relate to attacks on four camps for internally displaced people in Uganda in 2004. More than 4,000 victims provided testimony in the ICC case.

Ongwen’s sentence is to be handed down at a later date. He could face life imprisonment.

This case presented a dilemma to the court as Ongwen appeared to be both the victim and the alleged perpetrator.

He said he was abducted by the LRA and forced to be a child soldier, before going on to rise up the ranks to become the deputy to LRA commander Joseph Kony.

“Straight away we can say without mincing words that we are definitely going to appeal. On all the charges,” Ongwen’s lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo told the BBC. He said the verdict “landed like a bombshell”.

But it was welcomed by Elise Keppler, associate director of the International Justice Program at campaign group Human Rights Watch.

“This case is a milestone as the first and only LRA case to reach a verdict anywhere in the world,” she told the AFP news agency.

Who is Dominic Ongwen?

  • Abducted by the LRA on his way to school

  • Rose to become a top commander

  • Accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including enslavement

  • ICC issued arrest warrant in 2005

  • US offered $5m (£3.3m) reward for information leading to his arrest in 2013

  • Transferred to the ICC in 2015 after his surrender. Found guilty of war crimes in 2021.

Has Joseph Kony been defeated?

What was he convicted of?

Ongwen was convicted of counts including war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, rape torture, sexual enslavement and pillaging.

The ICC issued a warrant for his arrest in 2005 and US and African forces had been searching for him since 2011.

In 2015 he gave himself up in the Central African Republic (CAR) and his three-and-a-half year trial in the Hague ended in March.

At the start of the trial, according to AFP news agency, prosecutors showed gruesome footage of the scene after an LRA attack on Lukodi refugee camp in northern Uganda, where children were disembowelled and the charred bodies of babies left in shallow graves.

People watch the verdict in Gulu.
Thursday’s ruling in The Hague was watched live by people in Gulu – not far from the Lukodi refugee camp

Presiding Judge Schmitt read out the names of civilians who were murdered on the orders of Ongwen at that same refugee camp and three others in the areas of Pajule, Odek, and Abok.

“Civilians were shot, burned and beaten to death. Children were thrown into burning houses, some were put in a polythene bag and beaten to death,” the judge is quoted as saying.

In a legal first for an international criminal court, Ongwen was convicted of the crime of forced pregnancy committed against seven women.

Ongwen’s lawyers had asked for his acquittal and are quoted by Reuters news agency as saying in the closing argument: “When Ongwen was abducted he had no option, he was made a slave. That slavery continued until he left the bush.”

But prosecutors reportedly insisted he was an adult at the time of the alleged offences so cannot be excused of responsibility.

After the ruling against Ongwen his legal representative told the BBC it was an “indictment of the justice system of the international community – especially those who talk so loudly on the rights of children”.

What did the judge say?

Reading out his verdict at the end of Ongwen’s trial, presiding judge Bertram Schmitt said “the chamber is aware that he suffered much.

“However this case is about crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen as a responsible adult and a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Judge Schmitt added: “His guilt has been established beyond any reasonable doubt.

“The chamber did not find evidence that supported the claim by the defence that Dominic Ongwen suffered from any mental disease or disorder during the period relevant to the charges, or that he committed these crimes under duress.”

Who are the LRA?

The LRA was formed in Uganda where it said its goal was to install a government based on the biblical 10 commandments.

Map
Map

Led by Joseph Kony, it became notorious for abducting thousands of children to use as soldiers or sex slaves, while rebel fighters would hack off their civilians’ limbs or parts of their faces.

In 2005, the LRA was forced out of Uganda by the army and the rebels went into what was is now South Sudan and eventually set up camp in the border area with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They later moved to CAR where they acted more like a criminal outfit engaging in poaching and illegal mining.