The trial against Dominic Ongwen, a child soldier turned top commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), began at the International Criminal Court (ICC) on December 6, 2016. See ICC, Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen. Ongwen was indicted in 2005 on 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which include gender-based crimes and crimes of conscription of children allegedly committed under his direction in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2005, when Ongwen was a senior LRA commander. [ICC: Press Release] Ongwen is the first former child soldier to be indicted and to face trial at the ICC, the first LRA member to be tried, and the first ICC defendant alleged to be considered both a victim and perpetrator of the same crimes. [Guardian; New York Times] The LRA has been a central actor in 30 years of conflict that affected five countries and is accused of abducting of tens of thousands of children, but Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA and also a suspect wanted by the ICC, is not yet under ICC custody. [Guardian] ICC Trial Chamber IX only heard the charges and an opening statement from the prosecution and lawyers representing the victims on December 6. The Prosecutor will begin presenting evidence on January 16, 2017. [ICC: Press Release]
The ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, in her opening statements, read out the specific charges against Ongwen, including for the first time crimes of “forced pregnancy” and “forced marriage.” See ICC, Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen. The 70 charges focus on crimes committed during a series of four attacks on the following refugee camps in northern Uganda: Pajule IDP (October 2003), Odek IDP (April 2004), Lukodi IDP (May 2004), and Abok IDP camps (June 2004). [ICC: Press Release] If convicted, Ongwen faces life in prison. Ongwen has denied all of the charges, telling the judges that he was in fact a victim of LRA atrocities. See ICC, Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen.
Although defense lawyers did not present opening statements, they are expected to argue that the evidence used by the Prosecutor is unreliable and that Ongwen himself underwent a traumatic abduction by the LRA. [Guardian] However, the ICC Prosecutor has asserted that although Ongwen’s conscription into the LRA as a child would be a mitigating factor, he must still be held responsible for the atrocities he committed as an adult. See ICC, Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen. [Guardian; New York Times]
Lawyers representing the victims involved in the case also read opening statements. See ICC, Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen. These lawyers represent more than 4,100 “victim participants,” victims who, through their legal representatives, contribute to the proceedings by questioning witnesses or making submissions on legal and factual subjects in addition to testifying as witnesses. [HRW: Trial]
According to available information, Ongwen was forcibly conscripted as a 10-year-old into the LRA, rising to become one of LRA’s most senior and ruthless commanders. [HRW: Trial] Uganda referred the situation of its conflict with the LRA to the ICC in December 2003, and in July 2004, the ICC prosecutor opened an investigation into northern Uganda. [HRW: ICC Investigation] However, Ongwen did not surrender to the ICC until January 16, 2015, nearly a decade after the ICC issued a warrant for his arrest, because he reportedly feared Joseph Kony would kill him. [ICC: Press Release] The warrant issued on October 13, 2005 also named three other senior LRA commanders, now dead, and LRA founder, Kony. [New York Times; Guardian] Despite the 5 million dollar reward for information leading to Kony’s capture, he remains at large. [New York Times; Guardian]
The United Nations estimates that the LRA is responsible for killing more than 100,000 people, kidnapping more than 60,000 children to be used as soldiers or sexual slaves in the last three decades, and displacing 2.5 million civilians between 1987 and 2012. [New York Times] The LRA’s activities have not been limited to Uganda and have also affected the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. [HRW: Trial] Human rights organizations have suggested that where the ICC has jurisdiction, the ICC Prosecutor should consider adding charges related to crimes in those countries. [HRW; New York Times; Guardian]
The trial against Ongwen has been deemed one of the most important trials in the ICC’s 14-year history given that it is the first on LRA atrocities. [HRW: Trial] Many Ugandans, including victims, are watching the trial on viewing screens set up by the ICC in areas where some of the alleged crimes were committed. [Guardian] This was done in an effort by the ICC to make the trial accessible and meaningful to the local population affected. [HRW: Trial] Not only have the victims not received justice, but Ugandan communities still fear the LRA given that they remain a serious threat to civilians and a model for other militia groups, although it is believed that the LRA only has about 100 members today. [Guardian]
It is also an important trial to the ICC because the court has spent vast amounts of resources in building a case against the LRA leaders amidst accusations of investigating cases only in African countries. [HRW: Trial] The case against LRA’s leaders, however, was explicitly requested by Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, over 10 years ago. [New York Times]
The ICC, which was inaugurated in 2002 and has its seat in The Hague, Netherlands, tries individuals for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. The Court has jurisdiction over cases in which the alleged perpetrator is a national of one of the 124 States parties to the Rome Statute, the crime was committed on the territory of a State party, the State involved authorizes the Court’s jurisdiction, or the UN Security Council refers a situation to the Court. The ICC is an international tribunal designed to complement national judiciaries; thus, it can only step in when national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute.
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