Ugandan Civil Society Questions an ICC Prosecution Delegation on the Ongwen Trial

As the trial of Dominic Ongwen before the International Criminal Court (ICC) went into summer recess, representatives of the Court’s Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) responded to questions put by civil society in northern Uganda.

On August 1, 2017, a delegation from the OTP met with over 40 representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Gulu, northern Uganda. The objective was to provide updates on developments since the commencement of the Ongwen trial on December 6, 2016 and respond to questions from the community. The meeting was public and this article reflects on the questions raised by the CSO representatives and how the OTP officials responded to them.

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.

The ICC Prosecutor’s representatives started by explaining that Ongwen’s trial had begun with the presentation of the prosecution evidence, and that so far 24 prosecution witnesses had testified before the Court. These included two former LRA radio signalers, and seven victims who said they were present in different camps for people displaced by the conflict during attacks commanded by Ongwen. They added that according to the evidence given so far, Ongwen had not been physically present during some of the incidents, while in other locations such as Odek, he had personally led the attack. The OTP representatives predicted that by the end of 2017, 45 witnesses from the prosecution side will have testified, and that by mid-2018, the prosecution will have presented 74 witnesses and concluded its evidence. The Court has allowed 40 witnesses to have their testimonies presented in written form, without necessarily requiring them to appear physically in court. Such testimonies include those of seven women who are alleged to be former wives of Ongwen. They explained that at the end of the prosecution evidence the defense will start presenting its case. The trial is expected to conclude by the close of 2019.

Following this presentation by the ICC Prosecutor’s representatives, the CSOs present were then given an opportunity to ask questions.

One CSO representative wanted to know how the prosecution team had verified that it was Ongwen’s voice in the LRA radio interceptions presented as evidence. In response, the OTP explained that the former LRA radio operators who testified, as well as government interception officers, had identified the voice as Ongwen’s. They added that the radio interceptions had been obtained from the Ugandan government in 2005.

Another CSO representative asked why Ongwen was being held solely responsible for the 70 counts leveled against him when he had been acting on orders from his superior. The response given was that Ongwen was not being charged for crimes committed while he was a junior officer, but for crimes he is alleged to have committed as a senior LRA officer commanding over 300 rebel soldiers.

One of the issues dominating debates in Uganda surrounding the Ongwen trial has been the perception that he was both victim and perpetrator, and whether this meant he should not stand trial. It was therefore not surprising when several CSO representatives raised this issue. As one OTP representative put it: “We do not deny that Ongwen was victimized or that he was a child when he was abducted. However, we cannot present his childhood status at the time of his abduction as a reason for killing hundreds of people.” He added that when Ongwen surrendered to the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), the government’s armed forces, he was recorded on television as saying he was sorry for all that he had done in northern Uganda. Furthermore, he had not sought amnesty from the government of Uganda and had forfeited several opportunities to surrender.

One participant asked whether the ICC would ever prosecute the government for its failure to protect Ongwen from being abducted as a child. The OTP clarified that the ICC cannot prosecute a government or state as such but only individuals, though this can include state officials. They reiterated that the ICC was concerned with the atrocities alleged to have been committed by Ongwen as an adult commander, and not the circumstances surrounding his abduction. They cited gruesome crimes such as torture and forced marriage, which had caused immense suffering.

The OTP delegation explained some of the challenges the prosecution was facing as the trial progresses.  These included the tendency of witnesses to forget details they had given in statements made several years previously. To mitigate this in relation to some witnesses, the judges permitted certain sections of their previous statements to be read to them in order to refresh their memory. Witness protection was also revealed as another challenge. Mechanisms such as allowing witnesses to testify on camera were being used in some instances.

Another issue raised was why the ICC was not prosecuting any individuals from the side of the government or UPDF for their role during the conflict. As one CSO representative remarked, “The government must also be investigated because there were crimes committed by the government soldiers.” Another said, “The people in northern Uganda will never believe the ICC’s judgement on Dominic Ongwen if no one from the government side is brought to court.”

Another participant recommended increased funding for the ICC’s outreach unit to enable them to update the public more frequently. “I think the outreach section [of the ICC] should be properly financed because people still have questions regarding Ongwen’s age and the ICC’s jurisdiction,” he said.

A media representative asked whether Ongwen’s alleged children had undergone DNA tests to prove their paternity. It was explained that paternity tests had been carried out and the results indicated that some children belonged to Ongwen.

A CSO participant expressed concern at the slow pace of the trial, and inquired whether there was any way to fast track the process instead of waiting until 2019. The OTP said the only way was to reduce the number of witnesses, which the prosecution had already done, from 124 to 70. Explaining that gathering evidence takes time, the OTP representatives cited examples of cases that had taken much longer to complete, and called for patience on the part of the victims.

In their concluding remarks, the ICC OTP delegation stressed the importance of building trust with victims and witnesses as an important prerequisite for getting at the truth about what happened in northern Uganda.

The Ongwen trial is due to resume after the recess on August 14, 2017. This visit by representatives of the OTP demonstrates the importance of direct interactions in bridging the gap between the public in Uganda and the courtrooms of The Hague.

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.