A former radio operator of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) explained to the International Criminal Court (ICC) the measures the Ugandan rebel group took to keep their communications secret from anyone listening in.
Witness P-016 told the court on January 23 the radios were used to communicate the activities of respective groups in the LRA and also for them to report to their leader, Joseph Kony.
The witness was testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, who is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attacks on Pajule, Abok, Odek, and Lukodi camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda.
The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 when, according to the prosecution, Ongwen was a battalion commander and later promoted to be a brigade commander in the LRA. The other charges against Ongwen include forcibly marrying seven women, when they were girls, and committing sexual crimes against them.
Witness P-016 is testifying under in-court protective measures, which means his face and voice are broadcast to the public in distorted form, and he is only referred to by pseudonym in open court. The judges, lawyers, and Ongwen, who is in ICC detention and is present in court, can see him and hear his proper voice. Any part of his testimony that can identify him is conducted in private session, which means that portions of his testimony are not broadcast to the public. The witness gave his testimony in Acholi, and his testimony was translated into the two official languages of the court, English and French.
The witness told the court on Monday that one way the LRA protected their communications was by using TONFAS.
“You mentioned TONFAS. Could you explain to the court what that means?” asked trial lawyer Pubudu Sachithanandan.
“TONFAS is some kind of code. It is like some kind of key…The TONFAS messages were sent through esoteric codes,” replied Witness P-016.
The witness did not state what the acronym stood for nor was he asked to explain it. Last week, an analyst in the Office of the Prosecutor testified that TONFAS stood for Time, Operator, Nicknames, Frequency, Address, Security. The analyst, who also testified under protective measures, spoke in some detail about how the LRA code system worked.
“Who would design the TONFAS codes?” asked Sachithanandan.
“It was the director of signals. He was responsible for designing the TONFAS codes. He could also assign someone to design the TONFAS codes,” Witness P-016 replied.
The witness told the court that another way the LRA concealed their communications was to use jargon, and he gave several examples.
“Is there a particular meaning to number one,” asked Sachithanandan.
“Number one is death,” replied the witness.
“Number two?” Sachithanandan asked.
“Number two is injuries,” the witness replied.
“Panadol?” the trial lawyer asked.
“Panadol is when somebody escapes,” answered Witness P-016.
“Waya?” asked Sachithanandan.
“Waya refers to civilians,” the witness replied.
Witness P-016 told the court that radios were issued to brigade and battalion commanders, and each commander had a radio operator or signaller to operate the device for them. He said that during a routine radio call there were four people present: the signaller, the commander, the unit’s intelligence officer, and the administration officer in case a message needed to be noted down.
“The LRA did not keep a lot of records. They kept a minimal number of records,” the witness told the court in answer to a later question about LRA records of their communications.
Witness P-016 said that each commander was assigned a call sign, and these could change over time. He estimated that a single commander could have as many as 10 call signs. He told the court that a signaller could be assigned to different commanders, but they did not have their own call signs. Witness P-016 said signallers only used the call signs of the commanders they were assigned to.
He told the court that Joseph Kony’s call sign was Two Victor.
“Do you remember the call signs for Dominic Ongwen?” asked Sachithanandan.
“What I remember is Lima Charlie,” Witness P-016 replied.
“Do you remember any others?” Sachithanandan asked.
“Others are Tem Wek Ibong,” answered the witness.
Sachithanandan asked Witness P-016 how LRA soldiers received information about operations if they did not have radios.
“When they [the commanders and their soldiers] are together during the message broadcast they come close to the radio and listen to what is being said,” the witness explained. “When people are separated it is communicated to them by word of mouth, not by radio.”
After he explained the procedures of radio communications in the LRA, Witness P-016 was taken through a handful of audio recordings of LRA radio communications that were intercepted by the Ugandan government. He was also taken through transcripts of those recordings in Acholi. He confirmed the audio recordings against the transcripts. He also confirmed annotations he had made on the transcripts to mark mistakes, missing or unclear words, and other things.
He told the court prosecution staff first played for him audio recordings and gave him transcripts to mark 12 years ago when he escaped from the LRA. He said he continued being asked to review audio recordings and transcripts on and off until last year.
Witness P-016 will continue testifying on Tuesday.