THE HAGUE – The International Criminal Court on Thursday convicted a one-time child soldier who morphed into a brutal commander in the notorious Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army of dozens of war crimes and crimes against humanity, ranging from multiple murders to forced marriages.
Dominic Ongwen, who was abducted by the shadowy militia as a 9-year-old boy and transformed into a child soldier and later promoted to a senior leadership rank, faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment after being convicted of 61 offenses.
The judgment, which can be appealed, outlined the horrors of the LRA's attacks on camps for displaced civilians in northern Uganda in the early 2000s, and of Ongwen’s abuse of women who were forced to be his “wives.” Activists welcomed his convictions for crimes against women, which included rape, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery.
Defense lawyers had argued that Ongwen was a “victim and not a victim and perpetrator at the same time.”
But Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt rejected those arguments, saying: “This case is about crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen as a fully responsible adult, as a commander of the LRA in his mid- to late 20s.”
Schmitt described the reign of terror unleashed by the Lord’s Resistance Army, which was founded and led by one of the world’s most-wanted war crimes suspects, Joseph Kony.
Female civilians captured by the group were turned into sex slaves and wives for fighters. The LRA made children into soldiers. Men, women and children were murdered in attacks on camps for internally displaced people.
“Civilians were shot, burned and beaten to death,” Schmitt said as he detailed a May 2004 attack on a camp in the Ugandan village of Lukodi carried out by fighters commanded by Ongwen.
Kony promoted Ongwen to the rank of colonel after the attack.
Scores of Lukodi residents gathered around a portable radio to follow the proceedings in The Hague. Some broke down, weeping, when the guilty verdicts came in, according to a local journalist at the scene.
Ongwen showed no emotion as the verdicts were read in court. Usually, defendants are ordered to stand as the presiding judge reads out the verdicts. In Ongwen’s case, there were so many that he was allowed to remain seated.
“The LRA terrorized the people of northern Uganda and its neighboring countries for more than two decades. One LRA leader has at last been held to account at the ICC for the terrible abuses victims suffered,” said Elise Keppler, associate director of the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch.
Reacting to the convictions, the International Criminal Court's prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said her thoughts were with victims of LRA atrocities.
Bensouda acknowledged that Ongwen was once an LRA victim but said he grew into “one of the most senior military leaders, fervently committed to the LRA cause with infamous brutality. As an adult, he was personally responsible for encouraging and committing against others the very crimes that he himself suffered as a child. As proven at trial, he was also a direct perpetrator of terrible sexual violence, including against young girls, some of whom were forcibly “married” to him.”
Delphine Carlens, a deputy director at the International Federation for Human Rights, said that Ongwen’s convictions for rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage and forced pregnancy constitute “a great advancement in the international recognition of the gravity of such crimes and an important result of the prosecutor’s policy on sexual and gender-based crimes.”
The Lord’s Resistance Army, which began in Uganda as an anti-government rebellion, is accused of atrocities including mass killings, recruiting boys to fight and keeping girls as sex slaves. At the peak of its power, the group was a notoriously brutal outfit whose members for years eluded Ugandan forces in the bushland of northern Uganda.
When military pressure forced the LRA out of Uganda in 2005, the rebels scattered across parts of central Africa. Reports over the years have claimed Kony was hiding in Sudan’s Darfur region or in a remote corner of Central African Republic, where LRA fighters continued to kill and abduct in occasional raids on villages, and where Ongwen was arrested in 2015.
Kony became internationally notorious in 2012 when the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children made a viral video highlighting the LRA’s crimes. By that time the group had already been weakened by defections as it splintered into smaller, highly mobile groups. Uganda’s military estimated in 2013 that the group comprised no more than a few hundred fighters.
“Today’s verdict is a reminder that the LRA’s chief leader, Joseph Kony, remains a fugitive who has evaded justice for more than 15 years,” Keppler said, calling on nations to recommit to bringing him to justice at the ICC."
Invisible Children said this week that 108 children abducted by the LRA remain missing.
Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, chairman of the northern Ugandan district of Gulu, told The Associated Press there were “mixed reactions” among local people.
Some were sad that Ongwen faces years in prison despite himself being a victim of the insurgency, he said, while many others wept for children they don't expect to see again.
“There are so many children who remain unaccounted for. When such a thing happens, it brings back painful memories,” Mapenduzi said, referring to Ongwen’s conviction.
Mapenduzi said he has a nephew who was abducted in 1996, and the boy’s mother still “screams” his name some days, looking for him.
“From 1996 up to now, we don’t know whether he is dead or alive,” the official said.
Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed reporting.