Ongwen: Reactions to Lord's Resistance Army commander ICC trial

Uganda: Community watches broadcast of Ongwen trial © ICC
Lino Owor Ogora
This article by Lino Owor Ogora at International Justice Monitor presents a brief summary of perceptions and opinions from people in northern Uganda based on what has transpired in the three weeks of witness testimony. While the overall majority of those consulted thought the trial was proceeding well, respondents also expressed dissatisfaction with the slow pace at which the trial is progressing.

It has been over two months since the trial of Dominic Ongwen started at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands. Once a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule, and Abok in northern Uganda. His trial began on December 6, 2016, with opening statements from the ICC prosecutor and lawyers representing victims in the case. On January 16, the main phase of the trial commenced with the prosecution presenting its first witness. On February 3, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt announced that the court would take a three weeks’ break with trial proceedings resuming on February 27.

This article presents a brief summary of perceptions and opinions from people in northern Uganda based on what has transpired in the three weeks of witness testimony. It is based on consultations with 20 community members, civil society organization (CSO) representatives, and local leaders in northern Uganda regarding their impression about the trial thus far. The questions posed to them specifically rotated around four areas: if they had been following the trial or not; what they thought about the progress made so far; if they thought that the trial was on the right track; and any other general thoughts and recommendations they had.

The majority of the people who were consulted said they had been following the trial, although they also admitted they had not been doing so on a full-time basis. They cited reasons ranging from inability to access internet connectivity for viewing the trial, to being too pre-occupied with other matters. Five out of the 20 people consulted were straightforward in saying they had not been following the trial at all.

The overall majority of those consulted thought the trial was proceeding well. One community member commended the ICC for having got the trial underway on time. In his words, “The ICC has done a good job in ensuring that Ongwen’s trial starts on time. If you compare with the trial of [Thomas] Kwoyelo [the former LRA commander currently on trial in Uganda], which has stalled since 2008 then you can clearly see that the ICC is more effective than our Ugandan courts.”

Other people thought the prosecution was doing a good job. Susan, a lawyer and CSO representative said, “So far, so good. The prosecution is presenting its case well with strong evidence. I am optimistic that the trial will go well.”

Patrick, another CSO representative said, “The prosecution has presented its evidence well so far, but it is too early to tell whether it will be enough. We need to wait and see how Ongwen’s defense lawyers will argue.”

According to Gibson, a community member from Lukodi, “The narrative about what happened during the attack on our village and other places is being presented well by the prosecution, which is a sign that the court is dealing with the truth.”

Despite a general consensus that the trial was proceeding well, some people expressed dissatisfaction with the prosecution’s first expert witness to testify.  Tim Allen, a professor at the London School of Economics, testified on January 16 about a report he wrote for the prosecution explaining how the conflict in northern Uganda began and the LRA’s role in that conflict. Allen was called as an expert witness because he has been researching the LRA and northern Uganda since the 1980s. Some people felt he was not the ideal witness based on the fact that his knowledge of the conflict is theoretical and research based. Many people claimed they were hearing about him for the first time.

In the words of Eli, a CSO representative, “The trial is turning out to be artificial because how do you call a professor from London to testify in a trial where he has not experienced even a hint of the suffering that people went through. I will not be surprised if this professor has never stepped in northern Uganda. If he has, then it was probably for research purposes. This makes the trial look artificial. I do not think the ICC could fail to get an expert from northern Uganda who has also physically experienced the conflict.”

Susan agreed with Eli by saying, “There is a disconnect between witnesses and victims on the ground. I do not think a foreign researcher who has been to Uganda only for purposes of research would be the ideal witness.”

An issue of concern expressed by almost everyone I spoke to was the slow pace at which the trial was progressing. Almost all the people who had been following the trial thought it was proceeding too slowly for their liking. For example while expressing optimism about the prosecution’s efficiency, Susan was also quick note that, “The trial is progressing too slowly. I understand that the prosecution intends to call over 60 witnesses. But at the current pace the trial will drag through the next five years. I noticed that the first expert witness [Tim Allen] took up an entire two days just to describe the background of the conflict in northern Uganda. While it is important that the evidence is presented in detail, time should also be managed,” she said.

Joyce Sebit, the director of a CSO called Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative noted that, “The trial is taking too long. The communities are grumbling that the speed at which the trial is proceeding is not good enough. They are saying that the trial should be finished quickly so that communities rest.”

Joyce’s opinion was shared by Eli who noted that, “A delay in finalizing the trial means a delay in effecting reparations for the victims. Many people are saying that the trial is delaying and they just want the trial to end so that they can be compensated, but this cannot take place until the trial is finished. The delay, therefore, does not correspond to their sense of justice.”

Gibson from Lukodi was not happy about the speed at which the trial is progressing. “The court [ICC] is delaying. If possible they should at least provide assistance to the victims as we wait for the verdict. Some of the victims are dying off, while others are being reminded of what happened as the trial progresses.”

Fred, another CSO representative noted that, “The community members do not understand the cause of the delay, and this is reducing their interest in following the proceedings, while increasing their mistrust in the court.”

It should be noted that the Trust Fund for Victims has had ongoing projects in northern Uganda, although their reach is limited and not specific to victims in the Ongwen trial. Furthermore, despite the fact that the ICC outreach team in Uganda has repeatedly explained to victims and communities in northern Uganda that the trial would be prolonged; complaints about the slow pace at which the trial was progressing were repeated by respondents. The speed of the trial will likely remain a difficult point for victims to accept for the duration of the trial.

There are still many people who strongly believe that Ongwen deserves forgiveness based on the unique circumstances surrounding his abduction and role in the LRA. These opinions emerged during their assessment of the trial so far. Bishop Macleod Baker Ochola, the retired Bishop of Kitgum Diocese in northern Uganda said, “I cannot provide an assessment of a trial which in my opinion is not right. If Ongwen was abducted then he is a victim of circumstances. His humanity was destroyed and he became a killing machine. He is like a tree that was planted inside a dark house. Such a tree will never be the same as other trees. In saying Ongwen should be tried, the world is worse than the LRA that committed the atrocities in northern Uganda.”

Patrick agreed with Bishop Ochola by saying, “While Ongwen should not be completely exonerated of all guilt, the circumstances of his abduction should be taken into consideration by the prosecution.”

In the opinion of Joyce, “The ICC judges need to be careful when passing judgment because people in the communities still have mixed reactions about whether Ongwen should be punished not. Their opinions are not harmonized”.

Eli noted that, “People in the communities are reacting differently to the trial of Ongwen because they have different perspectives on what justice means. Some people still feel Ongwen should not be tried. Others think he should tried at home in Uganda.”

In line with Eli’s last comments, three other people expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the court was being held far away in The Hague, a factor which they felt did not allow victims to participate effectively. James, a CSO representative from Teso pleaded that, “At least one session of the trial should be held in Uganda. We don’t mind if all the rest are held in The Hague.”

Bernard, another CSO represented noted that, “Some people feel like they should have attended in person, but unfortunately they cannot because of the distance.”

The ICC declined to hold the confirmation of charges proceedings and opening statements of the trial in northern Uganda, notwithstanding recommendations from lawyers in case. However, in the latter decision, judges were open to the idea of a judicial site visit at a later stage of the proceedings.

Despite the slow pace at which witnesses are being examined and the mixed reactions regarding whether or not Ongwen should be on trial, many people overall believed that the trial was proceeding well as demonstrated by the above opinions. Ongwen’s trial resumes on Monday, February 27. It remains to be seen how the people of northern Uganda will react to the trial of Ongwen in the long run.

Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local Non-Government Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda.