During a hearing in the trial of Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court (ICC), a long-serving Ugandan government administrator denied allegations of stealing from people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. He also denied allegations that he attempted to kill opponents of the Ugandan government as he negotiated peace with them.
Ongwen is on trial at the ICC on 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in attacks on camps for internally displaced people and his alleged role in sex crimes.
Charles Taku, a lawyer for Ongwen, questioned Resident District Commissioner Santos Okot Lapolo about the allegations that came out in two court cases filed against him in Ugandan courts.
Taku also asked Okot about an allegation from the then-deputy leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that Okot had tried to kill him using a parcel bomb. Taku asked Okot about whether, in light of the allegation, the LRA leadership trusted him during negotiations for peace.
On August 16, Taku began cross-examining Okot, who has served as a resident district commissioner for the past 16 years in Kitgum, Pader, and now in Gulu in northern Uganda.
Taku began by asking Okot about a case, Uganda v. Lieutenant Santos Okot Lapolo. Taku read an excerpt of a letter from the director of public prosecutions in which the Ugandan prosecution said they had reached an out-of-court settlement with Okot. Taku asked Okot whether he remembered the case. Okot said he did and added it was thrown out of court.
“May I then suggest that the display of emotion that you show here about the condition of the chiefs, that display is undermined by this action that the government brought against you. What do you say to this, Sir?” Taku asked.
“I don’t think [so],” replied Okot.
The display of emotion to which Taku referred occurred when Okot shed some tears and his voice shook as he spoke about the LRA refusing to release children during peace talks and the treatment the children underwent while with the LRA. Okot also spoke emotionally about the conditions in the camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. This was when he was questioned by prosecution lawyer Hai Do Duc on August 15.
Taku also questioned Okot about an allegation that he attempted to kill the then-deputy leader of the LRA, Vincent Otti, using a parcel bomb. Taku asked Okot whether he thought an LRA ambush of government officials in 2004 could have been retaliation for the parcel bomb, which Taku claimed ended up killing one of Otti’s commanders.
“I didn’t [think so],” replied Okot.
Taku then read an excerpt of a report by the Chieftaincy of Military Intelligence in which it is reported that Otti claimed Okot sent him a parcel bomb but he did not open it. Instead, one of his commanders is alleged to have opened it and died in the explosion.
“This message was not relayed to me,” said Okot when Taku asked him whether he was aware of this report. Taku pressed him on the issue and asked whether what Otti claimed was true. Okot’s answer was given in private session.
Between Thursday, August 17 and Tuesday, August 22, Witness P-245 testified. He gave his testimony via video link and had a lawyer, Sarah Kerwegi, present. Kerwegi was present for the limited purpose of advising Witness P-245 on any testimony he gave that would be self-incriminating. This was in line with Rule 74 of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence.
Before Witness P-245 began testifying on August 17, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said Trial Chamber IX had decided to give him assurances that any self-incriminatory evidence he gave would not be used against him directly or indirectly at the ICC. Together with these assurances, Witness P-245’s identify was hidden from the public and any self-incriminating testimony he gave was closed to the public. His face was distorted in broadcasts of the proceedings throughout his testimony.
Much of Witness P-245’s testimony took place in private session. During his public testimony, Witness P-245 told the court he was abducted by the LRA in the 1990s and was a member of the Oka battalion when Ongwen became its commander.
He testified about attacks the Oka battalion carried out that he participated in or learned about from other members of the battalion. These were attacks on Palero, Pajule, Lukodi, and Odek.
Of the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity Ongwen has been charged with, 36 are for his alleged role in attacks on the Pajule, Odek, and Lukodi IDP camps between 2003 and 2004. The IDP camps were closed after the LRA ceased attacks in northern Uganda in 2006. The LRA stopped its attacks as part of a ceasefire agreed between the rebel group and government.
Witness P-245 told the court on August 18 that one time when Ongwen was being treated for an injury and he was staying in what the LRA called sick bay, the LRA leader, Joseph Kony came to visit him. He said Kony left his base in Sudan and crossed into Uganda to be with Ongwen at the sick bay.
“He (Kony) told the people with him that Dominic (Ongwen) should be protected very well because he was one of his good commanders,” the witness said.
Prosecution lawyer Pubudu Sachithanandan asked him why he thought Kony made the visit.
Witness P-245 said it was “because Odomi’s sister, known as Atong, was Kony’s wife.” The witness referred to Ongwen as Odomi, a name he was commonly known by in the LRA.
“Secondly, Odomi was a very hard-working person and was very well liked by soldiers,” the witness said. Witness P-245 said Kony spent two nights at the sick bay before returning to Sudan.
When Witness P-245 concluded his testimony on August 22, Judge Schmitt adjourned the hearings until September 11. He said Witness P-038 would be next to testify.