A former Ugandan rebel, kidnapped by the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army as a child and later risen to become the militia commander, was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Thursday.
The defendant, Dominic Ongwen, was a 9-year-old on his way to his village school in the summer of 1988 when armed LRA fighters grabbed him and took him to their camp, where he was beaten, threatened and trained as a child.
Now in his early 40s, he has been imprisoned for rape, forced marriage, torture, enslavement and multiple murders. His case has sparked debate among attorneys and international law experts as young Mr Ongwen fell victim to some of the same crimes that he has been charged with, including recruiting child soldiers under the age of 15.
It is the first trial against a commander in chief of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that led a violent campaign in Uganda and several neighboring countries from the late 1980s until recently. The case brought to light a wealth of details about how the fighters brutalized and maimed their perceived enemies. More than 4,000 victims were represented by attorneys as victims of his crimes in the case.
When the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, announced the verdict, he read a long list of atrocities ordered by Mr. Ongwen.
“He gave instructions to loot food, kidnap people and burn down the camp and the barracks,” said Judge Schmitt. “An old woman who could not carry her load was strangled and her throat cut,” he added. “His men shot, hit, and abducted civilians in the head and face to make sure they were dead.”
Some children were locked in a bag and beaten to death, the judge said.
“One witness saw bodies barbarically hacked,” he added, saying that the defendant was described by his subordinates as an extremely skilled commanding officer whom they were happy to follow.
During the four-year trial, Mr. Ongwen’s attorney argued that as a young boy, his client was so brutally treated by militia fighters that he never became a “fighting machine” that he had never learned to tell right from wrong.
But the judge said that Mr. Ongwen “has not committed any crimes under coercion”.
Human Rights Watch estimates that the LRA abducted at least 25,000 children in Uganda alone. Fighting between rebels and government forces displaced nearly two million people from their homes in Uganda between 1987 and 2006.
But the rebels who were driven from Uganda in 2006 also terrorized villagers by looting property and animals and burning houses in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In a United Nations report, an estimated 450,000 people were displaced in these countries.
Prosecutors pointed out that unlike so many other boys and men, Mr. Ongwen had never tried to escape his kidnappers. Instead, prosecutors said he followed orders, enjoyed his role, and rose to become one of the rebels’ top commanders.
He was charged with personally conducting raids, during which his brigade looted property and animals, burned houses, and abducted adults and children for use as slave labor. Boys were trained as fighters and girls were exploited as sex slaves and domestic servants.
The verdict closed a trial in which numerous witnesses – both former soldiers and their victims – presented their versions of Ongwen’s role in the rebel army’s campaigns against thousands of villagers who viewed the militiamen as supporters and enemies of the government.
“This is a milestone for the victims of so much brutality,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch, who investigated the rebel group long before the verdict was pronounced. “Justice is so difficult to achieve. This is the first opportunity for people to record and judge these infamous crimes in court. “
The bloody rampage of the LRA and its elusive leader Joseph Kony are notorious. Many in the region admired and feared Mr. Kony, who claimed to have mystical powers.
Mr Ongwen’s fighting career spanned more than 25 years, but his trial focused on attacks on refugee camps in northern Uganda from 2002 to 2005 as prosecutors had the strongest evidence to support these allegations.
The trial did not cover the group’s many subsequent attacks or rampages by four other countries in east and central Africa.
Thursday’s trial streamed by the court was eagerly awaited to tour the locations established in northern Uganda where many communities were affected by the fighting. Some groups have regularly followed the process on special radio broadcasts.
Prosecutors relied on radio tapes and satellite calls from the rebels, as well as military logs and intelligence reports from the Ugandan government. Both prosecutors and the defense brought up numerous witnesses who spoke of their experiences as ex-combatants or as co-wives of the rebels who gave birth against their will.
As the judge read the verdict, the judge said that seven women had been assigned to be wives of Mr. Ongwen; they all testified against him. The women said they were threatened with death if they tried to escape and that they were beaten with sticks.
The court has issued arrest warrants for four other LRA leaders, including Mr Kony. He was last seen in a remote region in South Sudan in 2020. The United States has offered up to $ 5 million as a reward for information leading to his arrest.