Lawyers for the prosecution and victims portrayed Dominic Ongwen as a sadistic leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who ruthlessly implemented the Ugandan rebel group’s policy of abducting children to use as labor, soldiers, or sex slaves.
Senior trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert continued on Wednesday, December 7, highlighting the evidence the prosecution believes proves the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity Ongwen is charged with at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Victims’ lawyers Joseph Akwenyu Manoba, Francisco Cox, and Paolina Massidda, who all also spoke on Wednesday, illustrated in their opening statements the harm their clients suffered during attacks on four camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda.
Ongwen is charged with either directly participating in or commanding attacks on Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok camps between October 2003 and June 2004. He is alleged to have done this first as commander of the Oka battalion and later as commander of the Sinia brigade, one of the four brigades that formed the LRA’s operational side.
Manoba, Cox, and Massidda also explained how the victims continue to suffer harm from those attacks to date. The victims’ lawyers also focused on their clients’ different expectations of Ongwen’s trial.
On Tuesday and into Wednesday, Gumpert sketched the prosecution’s evidence of the attacks on Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok. The evidence he told the court about included civilians who survived the attacks narrating what they saw and LRA fighters describing the instructions they received from Ongwen and how they conducted the attacks. He also played in court some of the radio intercepts in which Ongwen is heard discussing the attacks with LRA leader Joseph Kony and other senior LRA leaders. The radio intercepts were scratchy because of the static in them. Ongwen and the other LRA leaders communicated in Acholi, but the prosecution provided an English translation.
Gumpert said that for each of the camp attacks, the prosecution will seek to prove charges of murder, attempted murder, enslavement, pillaging, and persecution. He said the prosecution will also show evidence of the charges of torture or cruel treatment or inhumane acts.
As an example of the evidence for the charge of murder, Gumpert narrated the testimony of a witness, a mother whose child was snatched from her during the attack on the Lukodi camp in May 2004. The witness said the attackers took her child and two other children and threw them into a burning house. Gumpert said she said when the children tried to escape, the LRA fighters threw them back in the burning house where they perished. She said the children were four years old.
To show the evidence the prosecution believes prove the charge of cruel treatment, Gumpert described what a man who survived the April 2004 attack on the Odek camp underwent. The witness said he was forced to kill a man with a club and then for the next three days he was forced to look at decomposing bodies to make sure they were dead.
For the attacks on the four camps for internally displaced people, Gumpert said the prosecution had radio intercepts of Ongwen reporting to his superiors and fellow commanders about the attacks on the day they occurred or a few days later. Although Gumpert said that in some cases the prosecution did not have the actual intercepts, it did have the transcription of the conversations as handwritten by members of Uganda’s Internal Security Organisation (ISO), the Uganda Peoples’ Defense Force (UPDF), or the police.
Gumpert said each of these security organizations ran separate radio intercept programs targeting the LRA leadership. He said LRA leaders communicated via high frequency radio because it was the way Kony gave his orders and enforced discipline in the rebel group. Gumpert said Kony did this because he moved his base to Sudan from northern Uganda some time during the conflict and it was not easy for him to contact his commanders through other means.
To verify the radio intercepts and the handwritten transcripts, Gumpert said the prosecution will call 18 individuals of varying ranks within the ISO, UPDF, and police to testify in court about the intercepts. He said among the individuals who will be called to testify is the director of technical intelligence of the ISO and a former director of signals for the LRA.
On Wednesday, Gumpert also spoke about the experiences of seven women who testified before the Single Judge of Pre-Trial Chamber II in September and November last year about being forced to be Ongwen’s wives and the rape and other violence they were subjected to.
Their testimony is part of the trial record after the trial chamber ruled that the record of the hearings before the pre-trial single judge is formally submitted for trial. The trial chamber said in its August 10 decision on the issue it will defer its assessment of that testimony to when it is considering all other the evidence before writing its judgement. Ongwen’s defense has, however, applied to be allowed to appeal that decision.
Gumpert told the court that one of the women, whom he identified by pseudonym P226, said the LRA abducted her when she was seven years old. She said she was assigned to Ongwen’s household and that she was a ting ting, the name the LRA gave to girls who did household chores such as fetching water, collecting grass, washing clothes, and babysitting. P226 said that when she was 10 years old, Ongwen summoned her to have sex with him. She refused. She said she was beaten until her body was swollen. Gumpert said she said she was beaten continually for a week until she submitted to his demands.
According to Gumpert, P226 said Ongwen liked beating people or punishing them. She said that once she was beaten until she was unconscious because she urinated in the river. She said another time she was beaten because she gave another woman leftovers. She also said that she was once forced to kill a Ugandan army soldier.
Gumpert said that some of the seven women became pregnant after being repeatedly raped by Ongwen. He said the prosecution commissioned DNA analysis to determine whether the children are Ongwen’s. Gumpert said an expert will testify in court that DNA analysis shows Ongwen is the father of those children.
One of the lawyers for victims, Francisco Cox said one of his clients had a collapsed uterus because of being repeatedly raped by LRA fighters. He said she told him she was weak but still managed to escape the LRA. He said she told him this story to explain that she knew Ongwen was also abducted by the LRA when he was a child, but there was no reason for him to remain in the LRA unless he wanted to.
Cox said some victims wanted to forgive Ongwen, but he explained that they did so because they still had relatives missing and thought that by asking for Ongwen to be forgiven for what he did there was a chance they would see their missing relatives.
Joseph Akwenyu Manoba, who is co-counsel with Cox for one group of victims, said his clients describe life in terms of before the coming of guns and after the coming of guns. He described a community shattered after the LRA conflict. He said some women had become the sole providers for their families because of the injuries men had suffered. Manoba said some youth had lost any desire to work. He said alcoholism was rampant.
Manoba said one effect of the government’s amnesty program for former LRA abductees was that they could not get jobs. He explained that those who were granted amnesty were issued with a card showing so, and this easily identified them as formerly being with the LRA, which made them unable to get jobs.
Paolina Massidda, who represents a separate group of victims, said some of the women victims she represents told her they have been unable to develop “normal relationships” since escaping from the LRA. Massidda also had a 10-minute video played in court in which several victims narrated what happened to them and explained what they expect of the trial. None of their faces were seen on camera nor were their names given in order to protect their identity.
One woman said she had gone to fetch water when the LRA attacked where she lived. She said her children were killed and other relatives abducted.
“Only justice could make us feel alive again,” she said.
After Massidda finished making her opening statement, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said the trial will be adjourned until January 16 next year. Ongwen’s defense elected to make their opening statement after the prosecution concludes its case, which is why Judge Schmitt adjourned the hearing until next year.
Judge Schmitt said that when the trial resumes on January 16, hearings will continue until February 3. He said there will then be a three-week break with the trial resuming on February 27. He said the hearings will then go on until March 31. Judge Schmitt said the schedule after that will be announced later.