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Dominic Ongwen at The Hague

By Ronald Musoke

When Dominic Ongwen finally had his day at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Jan.26, the simplicity of his testimony contrasted sharply with the complexity of his case. Though Ongwen probably spoke for less than five minutes out of the 47 minutes that the entire event lasted, the few faint statements the former child-soldier-turned-LRA-commander uttered—interpreted and amplified by his female translator—left many people in Uganda unsure of what to make of the man.

Having swapped the nondescript army fatigues with civilian clothes since the beginning of 2015 when he surrendered, Ongwen made his way inside Pre-Trial Chamber II clad in a well-pressed navy-blue suit, white shirt, and checked greyish tie.

“I invite(you) to tell us your full name, your date of place of birth (sic) and finally your current profession,” said pre-trial judge Ekaterina Trendafilova, giving Ongwen the opportunity to speak in a pre-trial that was streamed live on the internet.

Speaking through a Luo translator, Ongwen answered:

“I thank you. First of all, I would like to thank God for creating heaven and earth; together with everybody that is on earth. My name is Dominic Ongwen; I am a Ugandan citizen from northern Uganda. I am from a small place called Coo-rom, Lamogi Sub-County in Amuru District.”

He continued: “I was born in 1975 and was abducted in 1988 and taken to the bush when I was 14 years old until now that I am before ICC. I would like to thank you very much. After my arrival, I was informed that I have been brought to ICC because of crimes.” Ongwen was then asked to provide the court with details of his profession to which he replied that he is at the moment unemployed although prior to his arrival at the court, he was a soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Ongwen could have been facing seven counts of crimes, including three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes yet many watchers were taken by surprise that he spoke with almost childlike simplicity.

Most of his accusations arise from a 2004 attack on an internally displaced camp in northern Uganda where hundreds of civilians were massacred in a single night allegedly by LRA rebels under his command.

According to the ICC Prosecutor, Ongwen is allegedly criminally responsible for murder, serious bodily injury and suffering and enslavement as crimes against humanity, and for murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population and pillaging as war crimes.

The Kony-led LRA is also blamed for the kidnapping of over 60,000 children from Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic since the rebellion began in 1987.

Ongwen’s plain statements inside the pre-trial Chamber II only served to remind some observers of the child that he was when he was abducted over 20 years ago.

How about the clear inconsistency in his bio data? Does it have any legal implications?  For starters, Ongwen’s birth date he gave in court is far apart from what the world all along knew. His current birth date makes him to be about 40 not 35; and the date of his abduction 1988 is two years earlier than many thought. Until he spoke, the popular version had been that he was abducted in 1990 at the age of 10.

Interestingly, Joseph Kony effectively became the leader of the LRA around 1988 when he gathered the remnants of Alice Lakwena’s defeated Holy Spirit Movement.

Does this then make Ongwen one of the very first child soldiers that Kony captured? And how is this new information most likely to be used during his trial?

Most likely this will not change anything because until recently Ongwen’s documents listed his date and place of birth as ‘unknown.’ Lucy Akello, the current Woman MP for Amuru District, who is also from the same village as Ongwen said many factors have contributed to the variation in information about Ongwen.

She says it is well known that back then, as a way of copying in the bush, one had to fake names and place of birth to protect the identity of the people the abductees had left behind. “I am sure Ongwen does not know his date of birth. But even then, the difference of three or five years is no big deal and wherever Ongwen comes from—whether from Lamogi or Paibona is not an issue,” Akello told The Independent on Jan.30.

However, Stephen Oola of the Refugee Law Project says if Ongwen’s contradictions continue, this will obviously be a concern when the trial begins in earnest on Aug. 24.

“The contradictions in the court records, what family members say, and what Ongwen himself knows are a grave concern,” Oola said, adding that, the Refugee Law Project is trying to ‘harmonise’ Ongwen’s family members so they can reach out to him in regard to providing accurate and coherent information.

Given Ongwen’s current state of mind, Oola says, the ICC should be giving him counselling to stabilise him mentally considering that he is most likely to have succumbed to a cultural shock when he arrived at The Hague.

“He can’t give a coherent record,” Oola says. Francis Onyango, one of the few locally based lawyers who are competent to participate in an ICC trial of Ongwen’s stature says although the discrepancy in Ongwen’s information could have an effect on the trial, it is not substantial.

“The effect could be in terms of his credibility but it can be explained by his defence team; that because he was abducted as a child, he did not have all this information.”

Onyango added: “Remember Ongwen is from a rural setting where this critical information may not be readily communicated as it is in urban Uganda where a child’s date of birth and other bio data is constantly passed on, possibly until the child is in his or her 20’s. This is not the same in the rural areas.”

Acholi remains sympathetic

As Ongwen started the process of facing international justice at The Hague, in his native homeland, his kinsmen remain skeptical about that type of justice.

Betty Aol Ocan, the Woman MP for Gulu maintains Ongwen is a victim of circumstances.

“Ongwen was abducted as a child and when he stayed in captivity for two years, things became normal for him and it is very easy to indoctrinate a child of that age,” she recently told The Independent.

Aol says Ongwen who came out of his own volition should not be facing the ICC when fighters who were arrested on the battlefield are walking free.

She adds the government also has to account in respect of Ongwen’s abduction. “It does not make sense for the government to forward him to The Hague when it failed to protect him,” she said.

This line is peddled by Lucy Akello also.

“He is an Acholi who was abducted as a child and was traumatized and had to do all those things he is accused of [in order for him] to survive,” Akello says.

At a more technical level, the lawyer, Francis Onyango insists there were problematic aspects to Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague considering that the crimes for which he was indicted were committed in Uganda. “Under normal circumstances, Ongwen was supposed to be repatriated to Uganda; where a judge was supposed to prepare his indictment to The Hague. But what happened to Ongwen in the Central African Republic was extra-judicial or akin to a kidnap.”

Onyango adds that his rights of access to legal counsel were violated during the detention period by the US troops and the UPDF.  As a result Ongwen ended up signing documents which he did not understand. The same happened when he gave several media statements. This only happened because he lacked legal advice, Onyango says.

Retired Bishop Macleod Baker Ochola(Kitgum Diocese) who is also a member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI)says before people pronounce Ongwen guilty, his former situation—his abduction and the trauma he experienced— should be considered.

“Ongwen was a child and his innocence should have been considered—before being taken to The Hague,” said Ochola, who directly experienced the brunt of the LRA conflict.

In 1987, one of Ochola’s daughters committed suicide after being brutally attacked by the LRA and exactly a decade later, his wife, Winifred, was killed in a landmine blast.  But rather than live with anger after the loss of his loved ones, Ochola is one of the prominent religious leaders in the North who have pursued sustainable peace over the last two decades.

Ochola promotes forgiveness and reconciliation and has been a strong advocate of different approaches to achieve peace and justice, including the use of the traditional reconciliation system of ‘Mato Oput.’

“The ICC is not the right system for serving justice,” Ochola told The Independent in a telephone interview on Jan.31.

Not everyone agrees.

Yet not everyone in the Greater North agrees with the sentiments from the Acholi sub-region. Indeed some observers say the latest emotional outpouring following Ongwen’s jettison to The Hague threatens to re-open old wounds in northern Uganda.

Victor Ochen, the director of the Africa Youth Initiative Network; a Lira-based non-profit that offers both medical and psychological rehabilitation to thousands of victims and survivors of the LRA conflict was in The Hague to witness Ongwen’s pre-trial on Jan.26.

Ochen told The Independent in a recent email exchange with this reporter that while in The Hague, many people whose family members and relatives were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) kept calling him. Most wanted to know how many of the children Ongwen abducted came back with him or; whether if at all, he had pointed out areas where they are.

Ochen, whose own brother was abducted by an Ongwen-led group in2003, said these questions reminded him of the lasting pain of families of abducted people who remain missing and of how strongly they want their relatives back.

“The war has created an environment of ethnic-divide and finger-pointing across the Greater North,” he said, “Given these circumstances, the ongoing campaign for Ongwen to receive amnesty instead of facing justice can also be seen, especially by his victims, as a strategy to nurture a culture of impunity.”

Ochen says it may be alright for many people to raise Ongwen’s status as a former child soldier—and if it is true—it should be taken into account during his trial.

However, he hastily adds: “The mere formal status of a former child soldier should not overshadow Ongwen’s acts as a senior commander in a group notorious for sexual enslavement, mutilations and kidnappings.”

“In his senior and trusted position within the LRA, Ongwen had the best opportunity to leave,” Ochen said, adding that,“Many other people, whom he abducted, managed to escape and came back home.”

“Some among those who had managed to flee came back with testimonies about how brutal Ongwen was to other children who tried to escape, which shows him in the light of a perpetrator, not a victim.”

Ochen says it is important to realise that Ongwen, like any other LRA commander, has achieved enough prominence for all the wrong reasons.

“Attention now needs to be focused on those victims whose lives he destroyed and whose days are still defined by severe physical and emotional pain.”Ongwen returns to court on Aug.24.

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