Judges Rule Out Holding Ongwen Trial Opening in Uganda

The start of former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen’s International Criminal Court (ICC) trial will not take place in Uganda due to security concerns and the judges’ heavy workload at the court’s seat in The Hague. The trial will commence on December 6, 2016 in The Netherlands.

In a July 18, 2016 decision, judges recognized the importance of “bringing justice closer” to the affected communities but decided against holding the opening in Uganda. They noted security concerns related to Ongwen’s “prospective presence in Uganda and the victims’ ensuing fear of possible episodes of violence.” They also cited the “judicial workload of the chamber’s individual judges in other situations and cases before the court,” among the logistical difficulties.

Last May, the prosecution, Ongwen’s lawyers, and victims’ legal representatives requested judges to consider recommending to the court’s presidency that the opening of the trial be held in northern Uganda’s Gulu district. In its submission, the prosecution also suggested that judges conduct a judicial site visit to the four locations where the crimes Ongwen is charged with were allegedly committed – the villages of Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok.

The judges held that a determination of whether a judicial site visit in northern Uganda would be of material assistance to their evaluation of the evidence should be made at a later stage of the proceedings, after having heard, at least in part, the evidence to be presented at trial.

Furthermore, the judges found that the prosecution’s argument that conducting a site visit before the start of the trial would save costs if combined with holding the opening of the trial in Uganda was “not applicable” because they had decided against holding the opening in situ.

This is the second time in as many trials when the court has considered, but failed, to conduct opening statements in locations where those on trial are alleged to have committed crimes. In June 2015, the court’s presidency abandoned the proposal to hold opening statements in the trial of Bosco Ntaganda in Bunia, Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time, the court cited security challenges including a “volatile” and “unpredictable” situation in the region. The presidency also cited the high cost of conducting the opening in the Congolese town, estimated at more than €600,000 (US$ 660,809), and it was feared could rise “unexpectedly.”

Last March, judges confirmed 70 charges against Ongwen, including attacks against the civilian population, murder and attempted murder, rape, sexual slavery, torture, cruel treatment, and outrages upon personal dignity. He is also charged with enslavement, forced marriage as an inhumane act, persecution, destruction of property, pillaging, and the conscription and use of children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities. The crimes were purportedly committed against internally displaced persons in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2004.

Ongwen served under LRA leader Joseph Kony, whose rebel fighters wreaked havoc in northern Uganda for nearly two decades. Initially in 2005, the former child soldier who was abducted and conscripted into the LRA was charged together with Kony and three other senior rebel commanders. Upon surrender in the Central African Republic in 2015 and his transfer to the court, the case against Ongwen was severed from that of Kony and others. The court terminated proceedings against two of the accused after confirming their deaths.