23/02/2015
Translated by Tobias Koch

Ongwen made his initial appearance on Monday 26th January before International Criminal Court (ICC) Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova for the pre-trial. He is represented by Senegalese lawyer Hélène Cisse. The Ugandan Government referred Dominic Ongwen along with four other Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel commanders - Raska Lukwiya, Vincent Otti, Joseph Kony and Okot Odhiambo. They were indicted on the 8th of July 2005 by the ICC for crimes against humanity. Two of the indicted commanders - Vincent Otti and Raska Lukwiya - have since passed on while Joseph Kony the leader and Okot Odhiambo are fugitives. Okello Oryem the Ugandan Minister for Foreign Affairs explains that Uganda referred the case involving the five rebel commanders to the ICC because the rebels had fled from Uganda and were operating beyond the reach of the local justice system. Minister Oryem says that Uganda was left with no option but to seek the help of the ICC so that an international arrest warrant could be issued so that they could be held accountable for the crimes they had committed both in Uganda and in the other countries where they were operating.

Who is Ongwen?

The story of Dominic Ongwen epitomizes that of many people who have paid a heavy price because of the LRA atrocities - either as victims of abductions, displacement and death. It is a story of a child, like many in the LRA, forcefully abducted, forced to grow up in the image of his oppressors and is turned into an oppressor himself. Abducted as a 10 year old child while on his way to school – he was reportedly "too little to walk long distances" – Ongwen nonetheless rose through the LRA ranks quickly, becoming a major at 18 and a brigadier in his late 20s. Joseph Kony (Lord’s Resistance Army rebel leader) himself promoted Ongwen, who became known for his courage on the battlefield and for carrying out brutal attacks against civilians.

The Lord’s Resistance Army rebels were however forced out of Uganda in 2005 and they took refuge in Garamba Forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo where they operated until 2008 when they were attacked by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces. The 2008 attack forced the rebels out of Garamba Forest into Central African Republic. In 2012, the US joined the regional forces by deploying 100 Special Forces personnel to help in the hunt for the rebel commanders.

According to Paddy Ankunda the Ugandan Ministry of Defense and Army Spokesperson, the pressure mounted on the rebels by the multi-national force (The armies of Uganda, South Sudan, DR Congo and CAR) made Ongwen to surrender to the Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic. The Ugandan Army Spokesperson says the Seleka rebels in turn handed Ongwen over to American Special Forces. He was detained at the headquarters of the regional forces in Obbo, Central African Republic waiting to be handed over to the ICC.

"Why take him to the ICC?"

Back home in Uganda the general feeling among many people is that the trial should have been conducted in Uganda where the atrocities were committed. Peter Magela Gwayaka a Ugandan human rights lawyer explains that Uganda has a strong case in asking the ICC to conduct the trial back home in Africa. “Uganda can argue that there has been a change in the status since the time of the reference because it now has a specialized court to handle such cases and the state has capacity to handle them so that can be the main argument for Uganda” argues lawyer Peter Magela. He explains that Uganda has since established a special division of the high court which is mandated to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In Ongwen’s home town of Gulu in northern Uganda, where he was abducted from, the district Chairperson Martin Ojara Mapenduzi says the ICC is practicing selective justice by trying only Ongwen. “There were those (Eds.: Government of Uganda) who were mandated to protect Ongwen and other people but they failed in their duty so they should as well be held accountable. At 10 years Ongwen was abducted and recruited against his will so. Why take him to the ICC?” Ojara says Ongwen should be brought back to Uganda and offered amnesty. “Ongwen was abducted recruited and forced to commit crime but now he is being tried while Ugandan officials who are culpable for failing to protect him from the rebels are walking scot free. This is selective justice”. Ojara wants Ugandan officials to also be tried for war crimes.

Government officials equally share the same feeling towards Ongwen. President Yoweri Museveni’s Special assistant for Communications Sarah Kagingo says Ongwen is more of a victim than a perpetrator. “My heart goes out to Dominic Ongwen, a child abducted by LRA at 10 years of age and conscripted into the ranks of the terror group against his will. The acts against humanity he is accused of were committed against him, against a child full of hope for a productive future”, remarks Sarah Kagingo. According to the Presidential assistant, Ongwen should be rehabilitated and reintegrated back into the community. “He could not have willfully committed atrocities at 10, 12, 16. He must have acted under duress, compelled by ruthless commanders, required to kill to remain alive, lest LRA killed him. Into brutality LRA indoctrinated Dominic for decades, the only life he must have thought is all there is in the world”, remarks Kagingo the Uganda’s Presidential assistant. She is among the many Ugandans who want Ongwen pardoned claiming that he is the first person to be charged by the court for committing the same crime committed against him.