The transfer to the International Criminal Court (ICC) of Ugandan rebel commander Dominic Ongwen has drawn mixed reactions in his home country where he allegedly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The second-in-command to Joseph Kony, whose Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) wrecked havoc in northern Uganda for nearly two decades, has arrived in The Hague following his surrender in the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this month.
However, while there appears to be wide support in the capital Kampala for Mr. Ongwen’s trial in The Hague, local media has run numerous reports of victims of his crimes suggesting that the rebel commander should be tried locally.
There have also been suggestions by some victims, particularly members of his Acholi community that were the main victims of the LRA atrocities, that he should be subjected to the traditional justice system known as Mato oput and then be granted amnesty. Mato oput involves mediation by clan leaders with the offender confessing and asking for forgiveness. Reparations, such as animals, are given to the aggrieved family.
Mr. Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague, which was agreed by American Special Forces and Ugandan troops in the CAR hunting for LRA leaders, surprised some observers, given that Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has lately been an avid critic of the ICC.
According to Felix Kulayigye, political commissar of the Uganda army, President Museveni consulted legal experts including his Chief Justice who advised that because Uganda had surrendered jurisdiction over the case to the ICC, it was legally bound to hand him over. Moreover, Mr. Museveni was advised that whereas Uganda had the capacity to try the rebel leader, the gravity of the crimes he faced made the international court more suitable.
Regarding criticism of the world court, Uganda’s junior foreign minister Okello Oryem argued that the Ugandan leader was only opposed to trial of sitting African heads of state.
Mr. Oryem said, “The statements he made were in line with the concerns raised by other members of the African Union. Trying a sitting head of state like it was the case on [Uhuru] Kenyatta simply meant disrespect to the AU.”
In a statement issued today, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said Mr. Ongwen’s transfer was a step closer to ending the LRA’s reign of terror in Africa’s Great Lakes region. She asked all states to renew efforts to arrest Mr. Kony and other ICC fugitives.
Ms. Bensouda said Mr. Ongwen served as a high ranking commander within the LRA and was amongst those that bore the greatest responsibility for crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC. “His transfer to the court’s custody sends a firm and unequivocal message that no matter how long it will take, the Office of the Prosecutor will not stop until the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community are prosecuted and face justice for their heinous crimes,” the prosecutor said.
Nicholas Opio, the secretary of the Uganda Law Society, said on a local TV talk show that trying the rebel leader in The Hague was in the best interest of the victims. They would be able to participate in proceedings with legal representation, which may not have been possible if he were tried in Uganda. Mr. Opio also said a trial at the ICC gave victims hope of receiving reparations for the suffering they experienced.
Similarly, Reagan Okumu, a member of parliament from one of the constituencies that bore the blunt of the LRA insurgency, welcomed the trial in The Hague saying it would expose atrocities committed by rebels and government forces. “As people from northern Uganda who have been advocating for truth telling about the atrocities that were committed in our area, we are happy for Ongwen’s surrender and transfer to ICC. It will help the world to know what happened,” he told a press conference.
Other commentators argued that in order to enable victims to have a feel of the court’s presence among affected communities, the trial should be conducted in northern or eastern Uganda, where the LRA crimes were committed. Conducting the trials in Uganda was, however, questioned by those who observed that the country did not have a witness protection program and that the country’s International Crimes Division (ICD) lacked requisite investigative capabilities and experience.
On July 8, 2005, ICC judges issued an arrest warrant against Mr. Ongwen for three counts of crimes against humanity (murder; enslavement; inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering) and four counts of war crimes (murder; cruel treatment of civilians; intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population; pillaging).
Mr. Ongwen was abducted by the LRA at the age of 10 while on his way to school. At the time of his indictment, he was 25. The crimes he stands accused of were committed in 2004, when he was 24.
“The argument will be about when Ongwen stopped being just a kid and turned into a mass murderer,” commentator Opiyo Oloya wrote in The New Vision. “This, the prosecutor will point out, is ample evidence that Ongwen had a choice, but instead chose to become a monster.”
However, legislator Okumu said if the ICC is fair, it will set Mr. Ongwen free since he was abducted at an age at which children adapt to the situation they find themselves in. This argument has been made by many others in Uganda, who claim Mr. Ongwen did not know better than to commit atrocities due to the brainwashing he underwent in his formative years.
However, this is countered by those, including Mr. Kulayigye the commissar in the Ugandan army, who argues that many former child soldiers in rebel outfits turned out to be very well disciplined soldiers.
In The Hague, Mr. Ongwen was expected to receive a medical assessment. He will make his initial appearance before Pre-Trial Chamber II on Monday, January 26, in the presence of a defense lawyer.