On February 2, it was revealed that for a limited period of time, Dominic Ongwen, who is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), was in regular touch with a Ugandan general who is Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s half-brother. The contact was approved by the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony.
It emerged during the hearing at the ICC that Kony thought the communication between Ongwen and Lt. Gen. Salim Saleh would be helpful to the LRA. This information was in a summary of an intercept of LRA radio communication that defense lawyer Chief Charles Taku read out in court on Thursday. The radio conversation was intercepted by Uganda’s Internal Security Organization (ISO).
Taku read the transcript out to Witness P-440 and asked him whether as a radio operator with the LRA he had heard this conversation, which took place on April 10, 2003. The witness said he did not remember hearing such a conversation.
Taku is one of the lawyers representing Ongwen, who is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crime against humanity. Ongwen has been charged for his alleged role in attacks that took place between 2003 and 2004 on the Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. At the time he is alleged to have been a battalion commander and then promoted to brigade commander.
He is also charged with forcibly marrying seven women and committing sexual crimes against them.
Thursday’s hearing is the second time Ongwen being in contact with Saleh has come up during the trial. Three people took part in the April 10, 2003 radio conversation Taku referred to. They are Kony, Ongwen, and the then deputy leader of the LRA, Vincent Otti. The portion of the transcript Taku read in court began with Kony telling Ongwen that Saleh had said on radio that Kony had refused peace talks. Kony said Saleh had broken a ceasefire by sending Ugandan military units to attack the LRA.
Taku continued reading out the summary in which Kony asked Ongwen to write down everything about his contact with Saleh so that it would help Otti when he gets in touch with Saleh.
Kony is then quoted as saying, “What Dominic [Ongwen] did will help.”
“He [Kony] asked whether Dominic has already buried the MTN phone given to him by Saleh,” continued Taku, reading from the summary. MTN refers to a mobile phone service provider in Uganda.
Ongwen is quoted as saying he had not buried the phone, and then Kony ordered him to have it delivered to Otti.
“Kony said Otti should not use that phone because it might have a bomb planted in it, and it might explode if Otti used it. Kony said Otti should use another phone to call Saleh and see what he has to say,” said Taku, ending his reading of the summary of the April 10, 2003 conversation.
Earlier, Taku questioned the witness about Kony.
“Can you tell the court on the basis of the audio you listened to today, what sort of a leader Kony was?” asked Taku, referring to several audio recordings that the prosecution had played for the witness earlier in the day.
“Well, my understanding is, it is very difficult for me to explain Joseph Kony’s leadership because in the bush Kony maintained that he’s possessed by spirits,” answered Witness P-440.
“Was Mr. Kony a very harsh commander who enforced discipline on members of the LRA? He expected to be obeyed, failure to which sanctions will be involved. Was he that type of a leader?” asked Taku.
“From my point of view, at times he was extremely strict, and at times he was extremely kind. It depends. Sometimes he speaks like a possessed person. Sometimes he speaks like a normal person,” the witness said.
Thursday began with senior trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert asking Witness P-440 about the procedures the LRA used for its radio communications. The witness is a former LRA radio operator who escaped from the group in August 2004. He began testifying on Wednesday, February 1.
Witness P-440 said radios were assigned to divisions in the LRA and brigade commanders. He said radio calls took place at nine in the morning, one in the afternoon, and either at five or six in the evening. He said there was no set duration for each radio call, and each session lasted as long as was needed. Witness P-440 told the court that often a radio call had to be rescheduled to another time when a clear signal was available because of interference.
Gumpert had a code sheet displayed to the witness and he confirmed that it was an illustration of the TONFAS code the LRA used to convey confidential information over the radio. (TONFAS stands for stood for Time, Operator, Nicknames, Frequency, Address, Security.) The witness then demonstrated to the court how the code worked using Gumpert’s first name and date of birth.
After going through the LRA’s radio procedures, Witness P-440 was then asked to authenticate portions of audio recordings of intercepts of LRA radio communications. The prosecution played an excerpt of an audio recording and the witness would be asked to identify the speakers and summarize what was said. He would then be presented with a transcript of the recording on which he had made annotations during a previous interview with prosecution investigators. Gumpert would then ask him to confirm his handwriting and explain some of the annotations.
One of the excerpts that was played in court was a conversation between Kony and Ongwen, with Kony’s radio operator and someone else called Madilu listening in. The conversation, like all LRA radio communication, was in Acholi. The witness, who testified in Acholi, gave a summary, which was translated by the court interpreters.
In the excerpt, Ongwen tells Kony he has just come from attacking Odek.
“Kony asked Ongwen, ‘Center’?” said the witness.
“Ongwen said, ‘Both the center and the barracks’,” continued the witness.
“Have you eradicated everybody?” the witness said Kony asked.
“Dominic [Ongwen] said, ‘Yes, everybody’,” the witness told the court.
“Kony asked whether there is firewood, meaning guns,” said the witness, explaining the meaning of the word firewood in the conversation.
“Dominic [Ongwen], ‘Yes, there is firewood’,” the witness told the court, adding Ongwen signed off at the point saying more information was coming in.
In an another excerpt there was a conversation between Ongwen and Otti in which Ongwen is giving details of what was seized during an attack on Odek. He said they seized a gun called PK and four bandoliers holding 200 bullets each. Other items seized were a rocket grenade launcher, another gun called LMG, and 34 magazines. Ongwen said they also took a 60-mm mortar, 15 backpacks, 10 uniforms, and 10 gumboots. He reported that nine government soldiers were killed and an unknown number of civilians.
When the two excerpts were played, it was unclear whether the attack on Odek referred to is the same one as the one Ongwen has been charged with as no dates were mentioned.
Witness P-440 will continue testifying on Friday.