Fatou Bensouda, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Court (ICC) has asked Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to come out of hiding and face justice.
Speaking to journalists on Feb.27 in Kampala during her second-of-a-five-day visit to Uganda, Bensouda said if Kony were to surrender and go to the ICC, he would be treated fairly and impartially, in accordance with the highest standards of justice, and with full respect for his due process rights as a defendant.
“Leave the bush and encourage other members of the LRA to do the same. Stop committing crimes against your own people and others, do the right thing and surrender,” she said.
“You have the opportunity to plead your case in court and let the judicial process establish the truth; there is no future in violence and brutality.”
Bensouda also reiterated the same message to the other LRA fighter and followers, telling them that they have nothing to fear from the ICC.
“We are only concerned with those five top commanders against whom the court has issued warrants of arrest. Abandon violence and choose a new, more promising path; a path which has a future.”
“Return to your families, communities and country, and start the process of rebuilding your life; it is not too late,” she said.
Exactly a month after Dominic Ongwen, one of the LRA indictees, appeared before ICC pre-trial judge, Ekaterina Trendafilova in The Hague, Bensouda travelled to Uganda to meet several stakeholders; including government officials, religious leaders and affected communities in the Greater North of the country.
She will particularly visit the districts of Gulu, Lira and Soroti not only to interact and listen and address the communities’ concerns but also to explain ICC’s work.
“Let me reassure Ugandans and in particular the people of the North as well as Mr. Ongwen’s family, that Mr. Ongwen will be treated with dignity throughout the proceedings at the court and subjected to a fair and impartial judicial process of the highest international standards that will fully respect all his rights as a defendant,” Bensouda said.
She added that a panel of three independent judges will listen to all sides and assess all evidence and submissions before taking any decision.
“At all times, it will be up to my office to prove its case against Mr. Ongwen and ultimately, whether he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt,” she said.
Asked why the ICC was trying Ongwen when he was abducted as a child and he was forced or cajoled to commit the atrocities, Bensouda retorted: “Is he a child now? You need to answer that question.”
She insisted her office is not investigating Ongwen for any atrocities he may have committed when he was a child soldier; rather she is investigating only those cases that he committed as an adult.
“It could be a defence but as far as the office of the ICC is concerned, Ongwen is not being tried because he was a child soldier,” she said.
The ICC, she said, will actually revisit Ongwen’s file and see whether it could consider crimes committed after the warrant was issued—cases such as those in the DR Congo and the Central African Republic.
A panel of three independent judges will listen to all sides and assess all evidence and submissions before taking any decision.
“At all times, it will be up to my office to prove its case against Mr. Ongwen and ultimately, whether he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.”
Before addressing the press, Bensouda met with several government officials including Rebecca Kadaga, the Speaker of Parliament who assured the prosecutor of Parliament’s full cooperation in the entire process of bringing justice to Ugandans.
Bensouda said she had made it clear to the government that all sides involved in the conflict in the North would be investigated and the evidence alone would determine which individuals would ultimately be charged, irrespective of status or affiliation.
“Without exception, we conduct our investigations in complete independence and impartiality. We have always been, and continue to be, guided by these same principles with respect to our work in Uganda,” she said.
She also noted that the Ugandan government through the Office of the Prime Minister as well as the Justice and Constitutional Affairs Ministry has re-assured her of support throughout the entire process.
Ongwen is being charged basing on the evidence collected over a decade ago which showed that crimes against humanity and war crimes—including the mass killing and mutilation of civilians, the abduction of tens of thousands of children and the sexual enslavement and rape of young girls were committed by the LRA in all regions of northern Uganda.
That evidence also implicated senior commanders in the LRA; Joseph Kony, Okot Odhiambo, Vincent Otti and Raska Lukwiya as being the most responsible for mass crimes.
It is this evidence that the ICC, after careful consideration and assessment, on July 8, 2005, issued warrants of arrest against the five commanders.
All the commanders who are the subject of ICC warrants of arrest, including Mr. Ongwen, were charged for crimes they are alleged to have committed as adults.
“We do not prosecute child soldiers for crimes committed under the age of 18; this is a strict requirement of the Rome Statute,” Bensouda said in a statement.
“We remain confident that one day, Joseph Kony will face justice for the enlistment and recruitment of children—including Ongwen—to participate in his campaign.”
On Jan.16, 2015, following his surrender on Jan.6, Ongwen was transferred to the custody of the Court, after nearly a decade of evading justice.
Bensouda said Ongwen’s transfer sends a firm and clear message that no matter how long it takes, the prosecutor and the international community at large will spare no effort to ensure that victims of mass crimes ultimately receive justice.
“This is a promising development but it is only the beginning,” she said.