A staff member of the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) explained to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how the Ugandan rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), devised ways of evading the interception of their communications.
The staff of the OTP, only identified by his pseudonym P-403, also explained to the court on January 18 how Uganda’s security agencies intercepted radio communications between different leaders of the LRA. Witness P-403 was not visible to the public and his image was distorted on the screens in the public gallery.
Records of the interception of LRA communications forms one set of evidence the prosecution is using to prove their case against a former leader of the Ugandan rebel group, Dominic Ongwen.
Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in attacks between July 2002 and December 2005 on four camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The charges against him also include forcibly marrying seven women and sexual crimes against those women.
P-403 told the court that the LRA got the radio equipment that the leaders used to communicate with during attacks on Ugandan military barracks, United Nations’ offices in northern Uganda, and missionaries in the region. He said the rebel group powered the radios using car and solar panels as well as solar panels.
The witness said when LRA commanders wanted to broadcast sensitive information they often used a code that was known in the LRA as TONFAS. He said this stood for Time, Operator, Nicknames, Frequencies, Address, Security. He said the key to decipher this code was in a document that was copied by hand and distributed by hand to each commander.
The document had lines of words down the page and each line had a number, the witness said. P-403 said each line had several words. He explained that the number of each line was identified as a mile mark in radio communication, and the relevant word in that line would be identified as a specific house.
“Go down to mile 55 and take the first house,” the witness told the court to illustrate how LRA commanders communicated using their code. He explained that this sentence meant the listener should refer to the first word in line 55.
“This system was used to issue instructions, such as attack or retreat or convey certain numbers such as the number of soldiers killed,” the witness told the court.
P-403 said that when LRA commanders did not use TONFAS to communicate in code, they used metaphors, Acholi proverbs, and jargon to hide the meaning of what they were saying on radio.
He said when the commanders wanted to give their position as being in front of a mountain, they would say there is a church in front of them.
“They would also talk about the word ram to issue instructions to retreat because a ram tends to back up before attacking,” said P-403.
The witness said the Uganda police, Uganda People’s Defense Force, and the Internal Security Organization (ISO) each had operations in Gulu, the main town in northern Uganda, to intercept LRA communications.
He said the police had one person who intercepted LRA communications all day, seven days a week. He said that person had an assistant. He also said the police were never able to crack the LRA code.
Witness P-403 said the Ugandan military and the Internal Security Organization had several people assigned to Gulu to intercept LRA communications. He said the logbooks of the intercepts were sent to an assigned senior officer based in the Ugandan capital, Kampala.
Both the Ugandan military and the ISO also recorded on tape some of the LRA communications, the witness said.
Witness P-403 said the prosecution first collected the logbooks and recordings of the intercepts of LRA communications about 10 years ago. He said the prosecution then collected more evidence of the intercepts between 2015 and 2016.
The witness also told the court the stages the Uganda police, Uganda People’s Defense Force, and the Internal Security Organization went through in recording the intercepted communications. He said the intercept evidence covered the period July 2002 to December 2005.
Witness P-403 also explained how the prosecution received and catalogued the evidence of the intercepts and determined which intercepts were relevant to the case against Ongwen.
The witness will continue testifying on Thursday.