Today, Ugandan rebel commander Dominic Ongwen made his initial appearance before an International Criminal Court (ICC) judge, nearly ten years after the world court issued an arrest warrant against him.
The alleged Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) second-in-command appeared before Pre-Trial Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova to confirm his identify and be informed of the charges against him.
Earlier this month, Mr. Ongwen reportedly surrendered to peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic and his transfer to The Hague was agreed by American Special Forces and Ugandan troops searching for the group’s leaders in that country.
In court this afternoon, Mr. Ongwen said he was born in 1975 in the northern Uganda district of Gulu and abducted by the LRA at the age of 14 years. Most public accounts claim that the rebel commander was abducted and conscripted into the rebel outfit at the age of 10.
“Right now I am unemployed,” he said. He then added, “Prior to my arrival at the court, I was a soldier in the LRA.”
Asked by Judge Trendafilova to indicate his language proficiency, Mr. Ongwen stated that he was proficient in Acholi, a native language in northern Uganda, which he spoke throughout today’s proceedings.
Prosecutors charge that Mr. Ongwen is criminally responsible for three counts of crimes against humanity: murder, enslavement, and inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering. They also say he committed the war crimes of cruel treatment of civilians and intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population.
The alleged crimes were committed in 2004 against civilian residents in an internally displaced persons’ camp during the two-decade armed conflict in northern Uganda.
The purpose of today’s hearing was for the pre-trial chamber to satisfy itself that the accused had been informed of the charges against him and to set the date for the confirmation of charges hearing. Mr. Ongwen said he had been informed of the charges against him, as well as of his rights.
Judge Trendafilova announced August 24, 2015 as the date for the commencement of confirmation of charges hearing. She said that in determining the date, the chamber had taken into account a number of factors.
“This is the first and oldest case before the ICC,” she said. As such, the period since the issuance of the arrest warrant against Mr. Ongwen required the prosecution and the accused to be granted sufficient time to prepare for the confirmation of charges hearing. The date is subject to change depending on developments in the proceedings in the case.
During the confirmation hearing, judges will decide whether there is sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that the accused committed each of the crimes brought against him. If the charges are confirmed, the case will go to the trial phase.
In the meantime, a series of status conferences shall be scheduled to keep the parties informed of procedural developments. The first of these status conferences is scheduled to take place this Wednesday, January 28.
Prior to the close of today’s hearing, defense counsel Hélène Cisse emphasized the urgent need for Mr. Ongwen to be provided with translations of all documents and evidence against him in order to allow him to prepare for his defense.
“Mr. Ongwen’s English is less than basic. He was denied access to education after his abduction,” she said.
In 2005, ICC judges issued arrest warrants for LRA leader Joseph Kony and four other senior members of the group, including Mr. Ongwen. Mr. Kony and two other co-accused remain at large. One individual has since been confirmed dead, and there are unconfirmed reports that a second wanted individual is also dead.