The opening segment of the landmark trial of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen concluded at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague last week. Charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Northern Uganda, he could receive a sentence of up to 30 years. Ongwen claimed he was abducted by the group and plead not guilty. The status of the defendant as allegedly both a perpetrator and victim of the same crimes was a key feature of the first week of hearings, and will likely be a continuous theme during the trial. Hearings resume on 16 January 2017 with the presentation of prosecution evidence and witness testimonies.

Ongwen pleads not guilty, blames Joseph Kony and LRA

Ongwen faces 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role as a unit LRA commander between July 2002 and December 2005.

The crimes are alleged to have been committed during separate attacks on four camps in Northern Uganda, and include sexual crimes, crimes of pillaging, conscripting children into active hostilities, torture, enslavement, and murder.

After the reading of the charges, Ongwen was asked to confirm he understood the charges against him and to enter a plea.

He pleaded not guilty, explaining that he himself was a victim of the LRA.

However, Ongwen claimed that while he understood the document presenting the charges, he did not understand that these charges were brought against him, as the crimes were committed by LRA and its leader Joseph Kony.

After conferring, the Trial Chamber concluded that the accused did understand the charges against him, as he was discussing his criminal liability.

President Schmitt also cited Ongwen’s remarks from the confirmation of hearing charges, where he had confirmed he understood the charges against him.

After Ongwen entered his plea, the prosecution and two teams of legal representatives of victims made opening statements. Ongwen’s lawyers indicated that they would make their case only after the prosecution finishes.


Prosecution presents broad case, with focus on sexual and gender violence

In its opening statement, the prosecution presented an overview case, briefing the judges of what the case entails, who is involved, the charges that Ongwen is facing, and other details.

The opening session did not, however, present any witnesses or discuss specific pieces of evidence.  

In her opening statement, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda highlighted the large variety of evidence they intend to call upon during the trial, largely focusing on Ongwen’s responsibility for sexual crimes.

Unlike previous cases before the Court, the prosecutor will rely very little on NGO reports, as over 4000 victims are participating and the prosecution was able to gather direct material evidence and witness testimonies.

Already during the prosecution’s opening statements, they presented radio transcripts, videos and photographs, demonstrating the range of evidence that has built the prosecution’s case.


Past victimization no excuse argues prosecutor

Prosecutor Bensouda addressed the fact that Ogwen himself was allegedly conscripted into the LRA as a child.

She emphasized that the purpose of the proceedings was not to deny Ongwen was also a victim, but rather to address the crimes he committed as an adult LRA commander.

The prosecutor insisted that Ongwen made the choice to stay in the LRA and to commit the crimes he is accused of, as he did have other options.

She stated that past victimization as a child might be considered a mitigating factor in sentencing, but was not a defense of Ongwen’s alleged involvement in war crimes and crimes against humanity.


Victims tell their story: “Only justice could make us feel alive again”

In order to strengthen victim participation, the ICC field office had mobilized a delegation of community representatives to witness the commencement of the trial and exchange ideas with representatives of the ICC.

This initiative aimed to promote community and victim participation and allows for victims to follow proceedings.

As one of the representatives stated: “I am privileged to have travelled and confirmed with my own eyes that the ICC in fact exists. I saw Ongwen in the court, and this means we have not been told lies about his trial. Even if not all people were able to come, they have at least been represented by us.”

Furthermore, in northern Uganda and Kampala, the ICC trial was live streamed and translated in various places so that local communities in areas most affected can follow and understand the proceedings.

The representatives of both groups of participating victims illustrated the continuous harm suffered by the victims and voiced their clients’ different expectations of the trial.

The Office of the Public Counsel for the Defense representative Paolina Massida, underlined the harm and psychological trauma suffered by numerous women abducted by the LRA, such as their inability to form normal personal relationships.

One victim, who expressed her suffering in a video presented by Massida, said “only justice could make us feel alive again”.

Independent counsel for victims Joseph Akwenyu Manoba and Francis Cox described the disastrous consequences the LRA conflict had on men of the affected communities.

They noted the physical injuries and psychological scars caused by the crimes of the LRA and how victims of sexual crimes continued to suffer.

They highlighted that men were left with no desire to work, and developed issues such as alcoholism.

They also noted the challenges former child soldiers conscripted by the LRA faced with reintegrating into societies and the stigma they experienced from being associated with the group.


Defense request for psychiatric evaluation dismissed

The evening before the opening of the trial, the defense team submitted a motion requesting the Court to halt the trial while psychiatric evaluations of Ongwen were carried out.

After conducting their own expert psychological examination, the defense claimed Ongwen does not understand the charges against him, is mentally unfit that prevents him from understanding the unlawfulness of his actions, and is therefore not fit to stand trial.

The request was dismissed by President Bertram Schmitt, with him underlining the untimeliness of the motion and emphasizing the importance of conducting an efficient and expeditious trial. He also noted that the Defense had failed to provide the Court with their expert report on the mental condition of Ongwen.

A further psychological assessment by the ICC Registry may be conducted, said the judges.