Ongwen’s Lawyer Describes Conduct of Witness as ‘Unacceptable’

The lawyer representing Dominic Ongwen, who is on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), told the court it was “unacceptable” that he could not ask some questions because of the conduct of a prosecution witness.

Krispus Ayena Odongo made this comment early into Friday’s hearing as he tried to cross-examine Witness P-003. The witness is a member of the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), and since at least 2002 he intercepted the radio communications of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group that Ongwen belonged to.

Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role as an LRA commander in attacks on the Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi camps for people displaced in the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks Ongwen is charged with planning, directing, or participating in took place between 2003 and 2004. Ongwen is also charged with forcibly marrying seven women, who were girls at the time, and committing sexual crimes against them.

On Friday, Odongo commented on the conduct of Witness P-003 after trying to get him to answer a series of questions about the distances between several towns in northern Uganda. His questions were trying to get at why the UDPF did not intercept any radio communication on the planning of the attacks on the Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi camps for displaced people.

Odongo began his cross-examination on Friday by asking the witness about the northern Uganda town of Abim. On Thursday, Odongo had referred to the witness’s testimony or statement to prosecution investigators that he had intercepted information about an LRA plan to attack Abim and this helped the UPDF prevent that attack.

“Can you tell court about how far Abim is from Gulu?” asked Odongo, referring to the town where the witness worked when he was intercepting LRA radio communications.

“I did not study geography. I do not have instruments for measuring distances,” replied Witness P-003. When Odongo told him he was not expected to know the precise distance but that he could give an estimate, the witness said he could not because he had never been to Abim.

“Is Abim further than Pajule?” asked Odongo, referring to the distance of those towns from Gulu.

“You know very well. You know all these distances,” the witness responded, indirectly referring to the fact Odongo comes from northern Uganda and has represented a constituency in that region when he was a member of Uganda’s Parliament.

At this point Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt intervened to caution the witness to answer the questions without comments to counsel.

“For me to be frightened away from asking certain questions because of the conduct of the witness is unacceptable,” Odongo said after Judge Schmitt’s reminder to the witness.

Witness P-003 persisted in answering Odongo’s questions in this manner until Odongo abandoned his cross-examination just before the morning break.

At the start of Friday’s hearing Witness P-003 asked to be allowed to return to testifying in the courtroom. The previous day he had been moved to a separate room within the court premises and was testifying via video link from that room. Judge Schmitt asked the prosecution whether they had any objection. Trial lawyer Julien Elderfield said they did not. Odongo said he did not either before remembering to ask his client, Ongwen.

Judge Schmitt then addressed the question to Ongwen while reminding him the caution he had given him on Thursday.

Ongwen spoke a few sentences and then said, “Somebody who causes injury to me I think I should not sit with him in the same court.”

At this point Judge Schmitt interrupted him.

“I want you to know that in this courtroom we have to show respect to each other, and we respect the rules,” said the judge before asking Ongwen to briefly say whether he objected to the witness returning to testify in the courtroom.

“I think for me I am not very comfortable now to share a place with a person who has killed my person,” said Ongwen. Judge Schmitt and his fellow judges Peter Kovacs and Raul C. Pangalangan retreated to confer on this issue. When they returned, Judge Schmitt said that the witness had communicated that he would continue to testify from the separate room.

At the end of Friday’s hearing, Judge Schmitt observed that this week’s hearing “will be remembered.”

The trial resumes on Monday.