A senior Ugandan military intelligence officer described to the International Criminal Court (ICC) how he joked with Dominic Ongwen, a former rebel commander, during a ceasefire between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government in 2006.
Colonel Irumba Tingira Omero told the court on Monday that when the conversation turned to whether Ongwen would allow the younger rebel fighters under his command to leave the LRA, Ongwen became irritated.
Tingira, the name by which the intelligence officer was referred to in court, said his conversation with Ongwen took place in September 2006. He spoke with Ongwen in one of the places the Ugandan army had designated for safe passage for LRA fighters on their way to assembly points in Southern Sudan ahead of peace talks between the LRA and the Ugandan government.
Ongwen’s trial resumed on Monday after the court’s summer break. The last hearing ended on July 17. Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in LRA attacks on civilians in Northern Uganda and his alleged role in sexual crimes between July 1, 2002 and December 31, 2005.
Before Tingira began his testimony, Ongwen’s lawyer, Charles Taku, objected to the fact that Tingira and another witness, P-355, would be testifying about things that happened outside the time period of the charges against Ongwen.
Senior trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert responded to Taku’s objection by acknowledging the testimony would address things that happened outside the time period of the charges. Gumpert, however, noted that the testimony would help the court understand Ongwen’s “state of mind” and what kind of command he had over his fighters.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt consulted with Judges Peter Kovacs and Raul C. Pangalangan. Judge Schmitt then overruled the objection Taku had raised but also reassured the parties and participants that the chamber was not “expanding the scope of the case. It is not expanding the scope of the charges.”
“We will see what we make out of it (the testimony). We would not want to limit ourselves to certain purposes of witness testimony,” Judge Schmitt said.
During his testimony on Monday, Tingira told the court the reason he met with Ongwen was because President Yoweri Museveni had ordered the units of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces in Northern Uganda at the time to make the movement of LRA fighters to Southern Sudan as smooth as possible.
In 2006, the then autonomous government of Southern Sudan had offered to mediate the decades-long war between the LRA and the Ugandan government, which is why the LRA was relocating to Uganda’s northern neighbor.
Tingira told the court that he and other military officers and a group of civilian administrators, religious leaders, and others met Ongwen on September 4, 2006. During the meeting, Ongwen was accompanied by approximately 60 people, including some of his commanders and fighters. Tingira then told the court Ongwen’s group included 10 people he believed were children aged between nine and 14.
“So, to quickly break the ice, I joked with him. I told him, ‘We had looked for you to capture you for long.’ He answered, ‘You failed until now.’ We joked and laughed and shook hands,” Tingira said.
He said he spoke to Ongwen later after he and his LRA fighters had rested a bit. He then asked Ongwen to consider leaving the LRA with his fighters and this would be their contribution to peace efforts.
Tingira said Ongwen responded with what he described as a sarcastic laugh, telling him that defecting was “the least thing on his mind.”
He said he then asked Ongwen to consider letting the children go. Tingira said Ongwen again laughed sarcastically and told him, “You call those kids children but I call them my soldiers.”
Tingira told the court he could see Ongwen was getting irritated. Ongwen told him that if he continued talking about defecting from the LRA, he, Ongwen, would order his soldiers to continue their trek towards Southern Sudan. Tingira said he dropped the topic, excused himself from the gathering, and left the civilians to talk with Ongwen.
During his testimony, Tingira identified different people including himself and Ongwen in several photographs that senior trial lawyer Gumpert showed him. Tingira said that he took the photographs because he usually had a camera with him as part of his work as an intelligence officer. He also said Ongwen gave him a camera to take photos with.
Tingira told the court that the children each carried a Kalashnikov gun and luggage but he did not know what was in the bags they carried.
“They were literally loaded like donkeys,” Tingira said.
He told the court they dressed in a mixture of civilian clothing and military uniform.
“They were malnourished. They were very dirty. They were stinking. Some of them were barefooted. They stood in near attention as if they were in military parade during the meeting,” Tingira told the court.
He said when he left Ongwen, he talked to one of the LRA fighters called Oryem. Tingira said Oryem told him to leave him when he brought up the subject of leaving the LRA.
Tingira said Oryem told him if Ongwen, “gets to know that we talked defection with you he will kill us.”
He told the court Oryem described Ongwen as “a truly ruthless man.”
When Gumpert finished questioning Tingira, the lawyers for victims said they did not have any questions for him. Abigail Bridgman cross-examined Tingira on behalf of the defense.
Bridgman asked him broad questions about his work as an intelligence officer in the Fifth Division. Some of the questioning took place in private session because the questions Bridgman asked touched on intelligence operations.
Earlier in the day, Tingira told the court that he was a brigade intelligence officer with the Fifth Division in northern Uganda between 2001 and 2003. He said he was then promoted to a divisional intelligence officer and later division intelligence officer. He remained in northern Uganda until 2006 when he was deployed elsewhere.
Tingira will continue testifying on Tuesday.