A prosecution witness told the International Criminal Court (ICC) he recognized Dominic Ongwen, who he saw in court, as one of the people who was addressed in respectful terms during his five-month abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Witness P-280 told the court on Monday he did not know Ongwen, who is on trial at the ICC, by name when he was abducted by the LRA because he heard him being referred to only as lapwony, the Acholi word for teacher. The witness said he first learned Ongwen’s name when he saw him on television in Uganda sometime between November 2015 and January 2016.
The issue of Ongwen’s identification led to the first re-examination of a witness by the prosecution since the trial began in December last year. On Friday, the witness said he did not know who commanded the attack on the Abok camp for internally displaced people (IDP) from where he was abducted in June 2004. He also said that he did not know any commanders of the LRA by name, except one called Kalalang.
Witness P-280 was testifying under in-court protective measures, including his face being distorted during public broadcasts of the hearing. The witness was also only identified by pseudonym. To further protect the identify of Witness P-280, whenever his testimony could identify him, that portion of the hearing was closed to the public.
Ongwen, a former LRA commander, is facing 12 counts for his alleged role in the attack on Abok. He is also facing 36 other counts for his alleged involvement in the attack on three other IDP camps, namely, Lukodi, Odek, and Pajule. Ongwen has been charged with a total of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On Monday, Witness P-280 talked about how he identified Ongwen when Abigail Bridgman, a lawyer representing Ongwen, questioned him.
“Mr. Witness, do you recall mentioning to the prosecution that you had watched NTV [a Uganda television station] and saw someone you recognized from the time in the bush?” asked Bridgman.
Witness P-280 told the court he was in Gulu when he was watching TV and saw someone he recognized. He had already said he did not have a TV at his home in Abok.
“And it is this time that you were in Gulu that you saw this person that you recognized, and you told the prosecution that this person was Ongwen? Correct?” continued Bridgman.
“Yes,” the witness replied.
Bridgman then asked him whether he recognized anyone else from his time with the LRA on television, and Witness P-280 said he did not. She followed up that question by asking whether he remembered what program he saw Ongwen on. Witness P-280 could not remember.
“So, you do not recall if it was during the news or a particular program related to this case?” asked Bridgman.
“It was a program relating to the situation before the court otherwise they would not have put it up on TV,” replied the witness.
When the defense finished questioning Witness P-280, trial lawyer Sanyu Ndagire asked some questions in re-examination. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt allowed the re-examination, saying the witness’s identification of Ongwen was a new issue brought out during the defense’s cross-examination of the witness.
“Mr. Witness … who referred to Dominic Ongwen as lapwony at the time you were in the bush?” asked Ndagire.
“Most of the people who were in the bush referred to him as lapwony. Lapwony is not an individual person,” said the witness. “Most of the older people were referred to as lapwony as a sign of respect.”
“And did you see Mr. Ongwen while you were in the bush?” continued Ndagire.
“Yes, I saw, but he was being referred to as lapwony,” the witness replied.
“What was he doing when you first saw him?” asked Ndagire.
“He would walk amongst us with other people, and when he is walking amongst us, people would be referring to him as lapwony,” the witness said.
In a follow-up question, Ongwen’s lead lawyer asked Witness P-280 whether during his five months with the LRA, “you never heard anybody refer to the person you finally recognize as Mr. Ongwen, as lapwony Dominic or lapwony Ongwen?”
“Perhaps they called him by that name, but they called him [simply] lapwony,” Witness P-280 replied.
Earlier, Bridgman questioned the witness about a discrepancy in his stated date of birth in some documents disclosed to the defense by the prosecution and his testimony in court. Bridgman said that the witness had testified his year of birth was 1986, yet in an application for sponsorship to school he stated it was 1990.
Witness P-280 said his birth certificate was lost during the attack on Abok when his home was burned down. He said soon after his escape from the LRA he applied for the sponsorship, and at that time he thought his year of birth was 1990. He said later his older relatives told him he was born in 1986.
“So, Mr. Witness, that being said, and I am terrible at math, I would conclude that you were 18 years at the time of your abduction. Correct?”
“I was 15 or 16. That’s what I know,” the witness said.
A little later Bridgman questioned him about the estimates he had given of the ages of other abductees he saw during his five-month abduction by the LRA.
“Now Mr. Witness you testified about age estimates of people you saw in the bush and you mostly used your own age to estimate that. Since you were under the impression that you were younger than you actually were, is it possible that you were wrong in your estimates?” asked Bridgman.
“If I was guessing based on what you are telling me now then perhaps you are correct,” replied Witness P-280.
When the hearing began on Monday, Francisco Cox, who is a lawyer representing one group of victims, asked Witness P-280 questions. Cox is also Witness P-280’s lawyer because the witness is a dual status witness. This means he is a prosecution witness and a victim registered in the trial.
Cox questioned Witness P-280 about his life before being abducted by the LRA, life with the LRA, and after.
“While you were in the bush did they give you food and, if so, how often?” asked Cox.
“Whatever they would be eating you also share with them. It depends on what is available. If it is little, you are also given a little portion of the food,” the witness replied.
Cox asked him whether the LRA gave him shoes to wear as they trekked to the different places they went to.
“Sometimes they give gumboots, the old ones. But many times, you move barefooted without shoes,” Witness P-280 said.
Cox asked him about whether he was given anything to cover himself with at night when sleeping.
“There was no proper bedding for those who were abducted. You would stay outside in the cold,” said the witness. “The commanders had tents, especially when there is rain they would stay in those tents.”
“Once you returned to Abok what did you learn your family had lost?” asked Cox.
“I found we had lost a lot of things, including goats, cows, bicycles,” the witness replied.
“How has this affected your family?” asked Cox.
“It’s a problem for us because when you went back home after the war, you have to start afresh. You have to start from the beginning,” the witness answered.
Witness P-280 concluded his testimony on Monday. Judge Schmitt said a new witness, Witness P-269, will begin testifying on Tuesday.