A former Ugandan warlord whose forces attacked camps for the internally displaced across the country, has been found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court, judges ruled on Thursday, a judgement described by the UN chief as a "significant milestone".
The Court based in The Hague, Netherlands, found that Dominic Ongwen was “fully responsible” for multiple grave violations in northern Uganda in the early 2000s, as part of a longstanding armed insurgency dating back to the 1980s.
Murder, sexual slavery
As a brigade commander of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), Mr. Ongwen sanctioned the murder of large numbers of civilians, forced marriage, sexual slavery and the recruitment of child soldiers “to participate actively in hostilities”, among other grave crimes.
Attacks against civilians were justified by the reasoning that they were associated with the Government and were therefore the “enemy” of the insurgents, the ICC said in a statement, noting also that LRA soldiers were “under orders to shoot civilians in the chest and head to ensure that they died”.
According to the ICC verdict summary, “in response to the question whether shooting a civilian during the course of an attack would constitute an offence, Witness P-0142, an LRA fighter, stated that ‘nobody would see it as a crime if a civilian is injured or if a civilian is shot at’.”
Those targeted “in particular” were those who lived in the many government-established camps for internally displaced people (IDP), according to the court, which examined evidence of attacks on four IDP sites: Pajule, on 10 October 2003, Odek (29 April 2004), Lukodi (on or about 19 May 2004) and Abok (8 June 2004).
Although the court noted that Mr. Ongwen suffered greatly after being abducted by the LRA as a nine-year-old child, it noted that he was being put on trial for crimes committed as a “fully responsible adult and as a commander of the LRA in his mid to late twenties”.
It was during the three-year period under review by the court from July 2002 until December 2005 that Mr. Ongwen rose from LRA battalion commander to head of the Sinia Brigade with the rank of brigadier, overseeing several hundred soldiers.
“The Chamber found that Dominic Ongwen is fully responsible for all these crimes,” the Court said. “The Chamber did not find evidence that supported the claim that he suffered from any mental disease or disorder during the period relevant to the charges, or that he committed these crimes under duress or under any threats.”
Testimony from a LRA soldier identified as “Witness P0307” underscored the systematic practice of enrolling child soldiers: “Each time we came across young people, we would abduct them and take them to the bush. We had to do this as we had to increase our numbers in the bush. So, abducting new recruits was part of routine activities during attacks so that there was no need for any commander to order you to abduct because this was part of the job.”
In total, Mr. Ongwen, who is 45, was found guilty of a total of 61 crimes against humanity and war crimes between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2005.
He faces up to 30 years in prison, although a life sentence can be handed down in exceptional circumstances. The ICC noted that following sentencing, discussions would begin on reparations for victims.
Over the course of 234 hearings from December 2016 to March 2020, the trial judges heard 109 witnesses and experts for the prosecution and 63 for the defence; representatives of victims called seven witnesses and experts.
An astonishing total of 4,095 victims were also represented in court.
Case a 'significant milestone' - UN chief
The Secretary-General António Guterres described the judgement as "a significant milestone in accountability and a step forward in efforts to bring justice to the victims of LRA crimes".
In a statement issued by his spokesperson he said it also marked the first time that the crime of forced marriage has been considered by the ICC, highlighting the "critical need to eradicate sexual and gender-based violence."
"The Secretary-General’s thoughts are with the victims of crimes against humanity and war crimes for which Mr. Ongwen has been found guilty", the statement said.