A defense lawyer for Dominic Ongwen questioned whether a senior Ugandan military officer could follow through on a defection offer he made to Ongwen, given that the officer held a lower rank than Ongwen and that, at the time, an outstanding warrant for Ongwen’s arrest had been issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Abigail Bridgman, a defense attorney representing Ongwen, raised the issue on Tuesday following Monday’s testimony by Colonel Irumba Tingira Omero, who stated that he tried to get Ongwen to defect from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when he met him in September 2006.
At the time of the meeting, Tingira held the rank of captain in the Uganda People’s Defence Forces. Ongwen was commander of the Sinia Brigade of the LRA.
“I put to you that as a captain at the time you had no power and no authority” to encourage the defection of “a brigade commander who had ICC arrest warrants issued against him and the fact that you did not get your instructions from the division commander there was no basis for Dominic Ongwen to believe you,” said Bridgman.
Tingira said he had dealt with many LRA defectors before and if Ongwen at the time doubted that Tingira could see the defection through then he could have requested to deal with someone of a higher rank.
“Then I would had set the motion rolling and then the clearance that he desired to have maybe he would have had. I was representing authority, legitimate authority. So, it is not about ranks. It is about the intention. It is captains and lieutenants who win the wars and then the government claims victory,” Tingira said.
Ongwen is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The charges are for his alleged role in attacks on civilians and his alleged role in sexual crimes committed between July 1, 2002 and December 31, 2005.
On Tuesday, Bridgman asked Tingira whether he was aware that two LRA members he said he saw with Ongwen during the September 2006 meeting held more important positions than Ongwen.
Bridgman said one of them, a Major Ayumani, was an escort of LRA leader Joseph Kony. She said another, Acaye Pito, was the LRA director of operations. She said Kony had sent Pito to Uganda from Congo, where he was based, to tell the LRA units in the country to go to designated assembly points as part of a ceasefire with the Ugandan government.
Tingira said he was not aware of the positions of Ayumani and Pito at the time but he said he remembered seeing Ongwen giving orders twice to Ayumani, and that Ayumani quickly executed those orders.
“Seeing them physically with Ongwen you would really see the level of command. You would see these guys as very meek, as meek as lambs in the presence of Dominic Ongwen,” said Tingira.
Bridgman also asked Tingira about cigarettes he carried with him to the meeting.
“Were these brought for the consumption of the LRA soldiers?” asked Bridgman.
“Yes, that was the purpose in the event that anybody wanted them,” Tingira said, adding in the military cigarettes are used to develop a rapport.
Bridgman asked him whether he knew, “it was absolutely forbidden within the LRA to smoke?”
“The LRA is an interesting group. There are things which would appear forbidden but they would be hidden. I had dealt with more than 200 defectors and I knew the dynamics of the LRA. Alcohol was forbidden in the LRA but believe me these guys would brew alcohol from wild honey in the bush,” answered Tingira.
When Bridgman finished cross-examining Tingira, another witness began his testimony on Tuesday afternoon.
Santos Okot Lapolo, who is currently the Resident District Commissioner (RDC) for Gulu in northern Uganda, testified about meeting with Ongwen in September 2006. Okot, as he was referred to in court on Tuesday, said at that time he was the RDC for Pader.
Okot said he and two senior military officers met with Ongwen in a place called Teo Lam. He told the court that the aim of the meeting was to get Ongwen to release the children in his group. Okot said he knew the young people in Ongwen’s group were children since they had not broken their voices.
“First of all, I didn’t see him in pips. He was in uniform. We talked and we shared the maize cobs and we requested that he should release the children,” Okot said.
He said Ongwen, “bluntly said no.”
“Did he explain why he was not going to release the children?” asked trial lawyer Hai Do Duc.
“He was going to wait for a command,” Okot replied. He said he insisted Ongwen release the children but Ongwen refused.
Okot also told the court he asked Ongwen to leave the LRA and told him if he was concerned about people alleging he had killed a relative of theirs. Okot said they could use mato oput. Asked to describe mato oput, Okot said, “In Acholi and Ugandan context, if you commit a crime you sit together with the people you committed a crime against. You dialogue and decide if there is a kind of compensation.” He said Ongwen refused that offer.
Okot will continue testifying on Wednesday.