The International Criminal Court has begun its first trial against a senior member of the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, and its first against a former child soldier. The procedures raise complex ethical questions as defendant Dominic Ongwen, who has pled not guilty, was both a victim and an alleged perpetrator of the rebel group’s brutality.
The trial against Ongwen took an unusual turn Monday as the defendant initially said he did not understand the charges against him. His defense team suggested he was not psychologically fit to stand trial.
But presiding judge Bertram Schmitt rejected those claims, and Ongwen was asked whether he pleaded guilty.
ONGWEN (thru translator): “In the name of God I deny all these charges in respect to the war in northern Uganda."
JUDGE: "You therefore plead not guilty with respect to all the charges, I assume.”
Ongwen faces a record 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity against him at the Hague-based International Criminal Court. They include rape, murder, torture, pillaging and enslavement during LRA attacks on camps of displaced people in northern Uganda between 2003 and 2004. He is also accused of many other crimes the ICC is not examining at this particular trial.
Possibility of life in prison
Ongwen was captured in the Central African Republic in January 2015. If found guilty, he could face life in prison.
The ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said the LRA’s brutality blighted the lives of millions of ordinary people. She showed graphic images of slaughtered children after four LRA rampages on Ugandan camps.
“Your Honors, the evidence shows that in each case, Dominic Ongwen played a prominent role in the planning and execution of the four attacks,” said Bensouda. "He did so as a commander of one of the four principal operations units of the LRA - the senior brigade.”
But Ongwen was also a victim of the LRA, abducted by the rebels at the age of 10 as he walked to school. The defense team will seize on his background in its argument. At the trial’s opening, Ongwen blamed the atrocities on LRA leader Joseph Kony, who faces an ICC arrest warrant and is still on the run, for the brutalities.
Investigation into abuses
Leslie Lefkow, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch, says the group has also called on the court to expand its investigation to LRA atrocities committed outside Uganda.
“We have also by the way, have called upon the ICC to investigate abuses committed by the Ugandan military during its long war with the LRA because we and others have documented serious crimes on that side,” said Lefkow.
The Ongwen trial comes after several African countries said they would withdraw from the court. But in the case of Gambia, where longtime President Yahya Jammeh was defeated in last week's election, the incoming president says he is committed to remaining in the court. And South Africa’s opposition has launched a legal effort to block government efforts to withdraw from the ICC.