Just or Unjust? Mixed Reactions on Whether Ongwen Should be on Trial

As the trial of former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen continues before the International Criminal Court (ICC), people in northern Uganda are still divided on whether or not his trial is justified. In response to the question of whether they felt Ongwen’s trial was fair or not, Civil Society Organization (CSO) representatives responded in different ways, citing different reasons for their answers.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. Ongwen has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage.

A Fair Trial

Proponents who say the trial of Ongwen is fair cite various reasons, among them being the gravity of the crimes that he allegedly committed, the need to ensure justice for victims, and the fact that Ongwen did not make any attempts to escape and benefit from an amnesty program that was in place at the time.

As Pamela Angwec, a CSO representative in Gulu said, “For every crime one commits there has to be accountability. Even in Uganda’s prisons we have people who committed petty crimes like stealing chicken, but still they are being prosecuted. Now looking at the magnitude of the crimes Ongwen committed, I say it is fair for him to be tried. You cannot kill somebody anyhow and not be accountable for your action and expect to just walk away free.”

Another reason cited by many people was the fact that Ongwen had numerous chances to escape and to take advantage of an amnesty program, which was in place at the time. However, he did not do this.

“I can say he is being fairly prosecuted because so many young people came out of the bush, but why didn’t [Ongwen] come back like others? Even if he is set free, I am very sure people will not [be happy] and may take the law in their hands,” said another CSO representative based in Gulu.

James Engemu, another CSO activist working in eastern Uganda thought the trial of Ongwen is fair based on the way the ICC was handling the case and the way Ongwen was being treated.

“For me, I think he is being fairly prosecuted because he is in safe custody and in good health, and he is not worried he is going to die. When the case started the lawyer of Ongwen said he was not in good health, so he was given time to recover and that is an indicator of fairness. In fact, he has been given the freedom to be present in court,” said James.

Other people held the view that the trial of Ongwen is fair because it presented an opportunity for appeasement of his victims. As some people argued, the trial was a means for Ongwen to live peacefully with his former victims in the event that he returned to northern Uganda after the trial.

Hellen Acham, a CSO activist working in Lira District said, “I would say it is fair because after the trial he will be free to socialize with people; because people already know he has been in court for his actions, and no one will raise any new issues against him again. This is a security for him.”

In addition, as Hellen and others pointed out, there is a need to focus not only on Ongwen as a victim, but also the people whom he allegedly committed crimes against.

“Let us not only look at Ongwen’s side as a victim in the first place, but also look at the harm he has caused his own people,” added Hellen.

Other people believed the trial of Ongwen is fair because it enhances the rule of law and ensures that Uganda is standing by its international obligations to fight impunity.

As Fred Ngom Okwee, a CSO representative said, “The trial is a fulfillment of Uganda’s obligations before the ICC. Ongwen’s prosecution will provide justice to the victims, who will see that the law is on their side. The trial has opened a wider space for international criminal justice in Uganda; for instance the International Crimes Division (ICD) has been formed in Uganda, and it deals with similar cases like that of ICC.”

Alice, another CSO representative concurred with Fred. “This prosecution is fair because Ongwen committed a lot of crimes against humanity, and he needed to face charges. His prosecution makes the victims feel a big relief because they see their interests being fought for and proves that the law is active and that human rights are important. This will make other criminals know that the law is not sleeping.”

An Unjust Trial

Despite the above perspectives, many people still continue to hold steadfast to their views that the trial of Ongwen is unfair. They cite reasons ranging from his abduction and indoctrination into the LRA at a young age, to the fact that the LRA as an organization should be the one to blame for crimes committed in northern Uganda. Another reason frequently cited was the fact that many other senior LRA commanders, who some believe committed worse crimes than Ongwen, have not been held accountable.

Bishop MacLeod Baker Ochola, an outspoken activist on amnesty and forgiveness believes the trial of Ongwen is unjust. “I have said it many times that Ongwen is a victim and therefore Uganda as a nation cannot punish him twice because he was already punished by the LRA.  When he was abducted to his way to school his humanity was destroyed, and he has become a killing machine for the LRA so the whole LRA has to be punished and not the individual people. Prosecution against Ongwen is not just unfair but the most unfortunate. The LRA should be prosecuted because it is an organization and however big it is, it should be prosecuted,” said Bishop Ochola.

Furthermore, some CSO representatives believe that there were other senior LRA commanders who should have been tried instead of Ongwen. They argued that some of these commanders joined LRA willingly, unlike Ongwen, They also allege that other commanders committed worse crimes than what Ongwen is charged with and have not faced similar consequences. For example, Brigadier Kenneth Banya and Sam Kolo are two former commanders who were granted amnesty. Ceaser Acellam, a senior commander who was captured in 2012, was also never tried. Based on these examples, some CSO representatives argued that Ongwen’s trial is unfair.

“He was forcefully abducted. He did not join the rebellion by himself as some leaders like Sam Kolo, Kenneth Banya, and many others did. It is unfair since he was misled. He should not be prosecuted but Joseph Kony, the LRA leader himself should be tried,” said Omara Christopher, a CSO representative based in Gulu district.

Stella Lanam, a former LRA abductee and a CSO representative now working with formerly abducted girls in Gulu, also thought that Ongwen’s trial was unfair. In her words, “Dominic is being unfairly prosecuted because he committed most these crimes in order to protect his life. He worked on orders of the LRA leaders. There are other top leaders who are walking freely and yet they committed the worst crimes if compared to that of Ongwen. Museveni and Kony should be the ones to be prosecuted since they are the ones who triggered the war.”

David, another CSO activist agreed with Stella. “The top commanders like Banya and many others are walking freely without any trial, making Ongwen’s trial very unfair. Age should be considered because there are children who were abducted and grew up from the bush. These include the likes of Ongwen, who grew up believing that committing crimes was part of life. Kony himself must be arrested and prosecuted since he is the one who masterminded the war.”

Many people who thought Ongwen’s trial was unfair also believed that LRA leader Joseph Kony should be the person trial.

In addition, a prosecution witness, who had served in the LRA, testified on cross-examination by the defense that he was happy when he received news that Ongwen had escaped. Among other reasons, this witness said Ongwen had been a good commander to him and treated him well compared to other LRA commanders. Such opinions further strengthen arguments of people who believe that Ongwen should not be on trial.

Based on the nature of the conflict in northern Uganda, characterized by the use of abducted children to serve in the ranks of the LRA, there will continue to be conflicting views on whether or not people like Ongwen should be tried. These varying opinions, which have existed since the time of Ongwen’s arrest, demonstrate the divisions that exist among the people in northern Uganda and seem unlikely to evolve as the trial continues.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda since 2006. He is also the Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local Non-Government Organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda.