The Hague, Netherlands | AFP |
Child soldier-turned-warlord Dominic Ongwen was known as a “ferocious and enthusiastic” rebel fighter, the International Criminal Court heard Tuesday, as he became the first-ever member of Uganda’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army to go on trial.
“Dominic Ongwen became one of the most senior commanders in the LRA … following rapid promotion for his loyal fighting and ferocity,” ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said.
“He did so by his enthusiastic adoption of the LRA’s violent methods and through demonstrations that he could be more active and more brutal” than others, Bensouda told the court.
Warning she was about to show “extremely disturbing images”, she played shocking videos of the scene after an LRA attack on northern Lukodi refugee camp, showing disemboweled children, and the charred bodies of babies in shallow graves.
Ongwen, 41, earlier denied 70 war crimes and crimes against humanity charges as he also became the first former child soldier to be tried by the ICC for his role in the notorious rebel group led by the elusive Joseph Kony.
“In the name of God, I deny all these charges in respect to the war in northern Uganda,” Ongwen said.
He maintained he “was not the LRA”, but “one of the people who had crimes committed” against them.
A self-styled mystic and prophet, Kony launched a bloody rebellion against Kampala some three decades ago seeking to impose his own version of the Ten Commandments on northern Uganda.
The UN says it has slaughtered more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children since it was set up in 1987.
More than 4,000 victims are taking part in Ongwen’s trial and scores were watching the proceedings at four sites in northern Uganda.
About 150 people, mostly subsistence farmers, crammed into a room at Lukodi primary school to watch, squeezed onto rows of dilapidated wooden benches.
“We have been waiting almost 11 years for justice,” said Vincent Oyet, whose stepmother was shot in a 2004 LRA raid and whose house was burned to the ground.
The son of Ugandan schoolteachers, Ongwen was abducted as a child while on his way to school, and likely suffered sadistic initiation rites into the militia’s ranks such as being forced to drink the blood of his victims.
But ICC prosecutors in The Hague say unlike some 9,000 people who escaped from the LRA, Ongwen chose to stay, helping orchestrate the abduction and enslavement “of children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities”.
The trial focuses on attacks on four refugee camps in northern Uganda from 2002 to 2005, in which people were killed, tortured, raped and children kidnapped to be “moulded” into the LRA’s way of life.
Some were as young as six, said Bensouda recounting how one witness told of kids being given military training but “they were so small that the muzzles of their AK47 rifles dragged on the ground.”
Ongwen also stands accused of systematically abducting young girls for sex, and distributing hundreds to his men.
“They were held for months, and in many cases for years in sexual and domestic slavery,” Bensouda said, describing repeated rapes that often led to the birth of children who were “ingested” into the LRA ranks.
Ongwen, who listened intently in court writing notes in a small notebook, is said to have had at least seven wives — one was just 10 when she was first raped. DNA tests have revealed he fathered at least 11 children with different girls.
The defence however says it is considering several arguments including that Ongwen is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. His lawyers also maintain he was acting under duress.
Observers say Ongwen’s trial raises deep questions about how to prosecute crimes involving children subjected to years of abuse.
But Bensouda said: “Having suffered victimisation in the past is not a justification or an excuse to victimise others.”
Each human being is “endowed with moral responsibility for their actions,” she said.
“We are not here to deny that he was a victim in his youth, we will prove what he did, what he said and the impact on the many victims,” she said.
Ongwen surrendered himself to US forces in 2015. But Kony remains at large with about 150 followers hiding out in the jungles of the Central African Republic.