Ongwen Confirmation Hearing Goes into Day Two

On Jan. 22, the confirmation of charges hearing in the case against Dominic Ongwen continued at the International Criminal Court (ICC). The prosecution concluded its submissions to prove that it has enough evidence of the 70 alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity for the case to proceed to trial. Some of the submissions, which referred to 11 charges that remain confidential for security reasons, were made in closed session. The lawyers from the ICC Office of the Public Counsel for Victims (OPCV), which is representing 592 victims, started its submissions, which will conclude on Monday.

The prosecution referred to the crimes allegedly committed by Dominic Ongwen in Odek, Lukodi, and Abok(e) camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The Lords Resistance Army (LRA) allegedly murdered, tortured, enslaved, and persecuted innocent civilians residing in these camps. According to the prosecution, the LRA also pillaged the camps and surrounding areas. This involved looting food and other supplies from civilian homes and stores in the trading centers.

Some of the witnesses the prosecution plans to rely on are former LRA fighters, including abductees who were in Ongwen’s LRA battalion. These witnesses allege that he held an influential commanding position within the LRA and instructed them to abduct and kill innocent civilians. One of these witnesses for example, recalls Ongwen ordering his subordinates to “kill anyone who remained in the camp.”

The prosecution’s lawyer alleged that at the time of carrying out the attacks in Odek, Dominic Ongwen had risen to the rank of “Commander of Sinia Brigade” and was therefore the “architect of operational attacks.” Prosecution witness testimony alleges that Ongwen personally carried out the attacks in Odek and Abok. However, he is reported to have participated remotely in the Lukodi attack.

The prosecution played intercepted LRA radio conversations by Dominic Ongwen and other senior LRA leaders like Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti. In these clips, Ongwen confirms the killing of civilians in Odek camp by LRA fighters under his command.  The prosecution also relied on the testimony of two witnesses working with Ugandan security agencies with “a combined experience of 16 years listening to LRA radio communications” who could identify Ongwen’s voice on the record.

Referring specifically to the Lukodi attack, the prosecution noted that the LRA fighters did not attack any government soldiers but rather targeted civilians. A video shot by Ugandan authorities soon after the attack showed civilian homes burned to the ground. The prosecution also referred to the testimony of a Ugandan government pathologist who exhumed bodies of civilians and established how they were killed.

The prosecution moved next to presenting evidence of sexual and gender-based crimes and highlighted Dominic Ongwen’s role in furthering the LRA’s policy in that respect. In the trial lawyer’s words, “abducted women and girls were treated as chattel.” Dominic Ongwen himself allegedly oversaw the abduction of women and girls, their distribution to LRA fighters, and in some cases took them on as wives himself. Ongwen “faithfully carried out the LRA’s brutal policy” concerning sexual and gender-based crimes, the prosecution contended. Some of the crimes allegedly suffered by women include forced marriage, torture, rape, sexual slavery, and enslavement. These charges covered in particular the Teso region.

On charges relating to conscripting children and using them in hostilities, the prosecution plans to rely on the testimony of 36 witnesses, four of whom are former child soldiers. The prosecution lawyer recognized that although Ongwen was himself once a child soldier, he later became a “faithful follower” and “executor” of the policy of child recruitment. A child soldier told the prosecution, “Ongwen trained me how to use a gun.” According to the prosecution, the policy of recruiting child soldiers was important to the LRA because according to Joseph Kony himself, “without child recruits the LRA would be nowhere.” Once abducted, the prosecution said, conscripted children were forcefully involved in combat as well as activities linked to combat, such as serving as escorts to senior commanders like Ongwen, porters, and scouts.

The session concluded with submissions from victims’ lawyers from the OPCV, who spoke on behalf of their clients about their perceptions and expectations of the case against Dominic Ongwen. The OPCV principal counsel noted that “victims have been waiting for proceedings to start before this court for 13 years.” For this reason, some have lost trust in proceedings before the court, and others have died. The concerns of victims also include the fact that the extent of their victimization is not fully addressed by the case. Victims have expressed hope to contribute to the search for truth and expect to have their voices heard in these proceedings, their lawyer noted.

Jane Adong Anywar, a Ugandan lawyer working with the OPCV, traced the historical and political background of the conflict in Northern Uganda between the government of Uganda and the LRA. She referred to the “North-South” divide in Uganda that partly led to the conflict in Northern Uganda and was highlighted in the Juba peace agreement. According to her submissions, victims were caught in the crossfire between the two parties and suffered. In addition, she described the negative impact the conflict had on the victim communities. This included physical and psycho-social trauma, destruction of property and loss of lives. Furthermore, she recalled the continued importance of the Acholi traditional tenets of reconciliation and accountability.

On Monday January 25, 2016, the OPCV lawyers’ submissions will continue. External legal representatives for another group of 1434 victims will then present to the court.

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