A Year Down the Road: Community Member’s Perspectives of Ongwen’s Trial Since December 2016

The trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), began on December 6, 2016 before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Over the past year, more than 50 prosecution witnesses have testified, marking significant progress in the trial. However, the trial has drawn mixed reactions from the public in Uganda, with some in favor of the process and others against it.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former internally displaced persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Abok, Pajule, and Odek. He is also charged with sexual and gender based crimes and with the conscription and use of child soldiers.

The trial resumed on January 15, after a six-week break, with the continuation of the prosecution case. With the resumption of the trial in 2018, International Justice Monitor sought out community member’s views on how they felt the first year had gone. While many felt the ICC had done a commendable job of moving the trial along, they also continued to express dissatisfaction. Areas of concern included the slow pace of the trial proceedings, the criteria for witness selection, and the distance from The Hague to where the victims are located.

Other issues of concern were the narrow geographical focus of the trial, as this limits victim participation mainly to the locations where Ongwen has been charged with crimes – Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok. There is also frustration at the lack of accountability proceedings against the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF), which has also been accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Uganda.

As was the case in 2017, the public continued to have mixed reactions regarding whether Ongwen’s trial is justified or not. Proponents against the trial include long-term advocates for amnesty and forgiveness, such as outspoken Bishop MacLeord Baker Ochola, a prominent member of the Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative (ARLPI). These proponents still hold fast to the belief that Ongwen, like many other LRA commanders, should have been pardoned and allowed to reconcile with his alleged victims.

“Our position is very clear. As we said earlier, it was not necessary for the ICC to take Ongwen to the court because Ongwen was and is still a victim of circumstances and was forced to do whatever he did,” said Bishop Ochola.

Bishop Ochola’s opinion is shared by many people in northern Uganda who believe that Ongwen should have been pardoned and allowed to go through the process of reconciliation in northern Uganda. He also believes that engaging in a process of truth telling is the only way through which Ongwen’s motives can be understood.

“It is only through reconciliation and truth telling that Ongwen would tell us what he and his friends were forced to do while in the captivity with LRA. Ongwen’s trial at the ICC is like punishing him twice…when a child is abducted by the LRA, his humanity is destroyed and he is forced to kill. So just like the LRA, the ICC is subjecting Ongwen to a second punishment for what he did not do deliberately,” added Bishop Ochola.

However, a significant number of people continue to believe that Ongwen’s trial is justified and is a ray of hope for victims who suffered during the war. The people in this category include those who lost their loved ones and property to the LRA in northern Uganda, such as Vincent, a community member in Lukodi.

“I like the fact that Ongwen’s charges were confirmed by the ICC and that the actual trial started and is proceeding well. The trial gives the victims hope that one day the court will rule in their favor since they suffered at the hands of Ongwen,” said Vincent.

“The trial has been good for promoting accountability although the judgement has not yet been passed. The ICC has kept Ongwen in custody, and we can see him being tried in court which is the beginning of justice for us,” said James, a CSO representative from Teso.

Regardless of their views, community members continued to decry the slow pace of the trial, describing it as a denial of justice for both the victims and Ongwen himself. They warned that some of the victims, particularly the elderly and fragile, could be dead by the time a judgment is delivered.

“I don’t like the fact that the trial is taking so long. This will delay justice. Some of the victims who are waiting for reparations are already aging. Prolonging the trial might not allow them to benefit from reparations since the final ruling might take place when some of the witnesses have already died,” said Vincent.

“The trial is taking too long and this makes the victims very anxious. The long process of the trial makes people…lose hope and lose interest in following the trail,” said Beatrice, a civil society organization representative in northern Uganda.

Asunta, a community member residing in Gulu Town added, “The trial is taking too long, and by the time the case is decided, some of the victims who are supposed to receive reparations will be dead.”

Besides the slow pace of the trial, some community members still did not understand the process through which witnesses were being selected. Throughout 2017, the prosecution called on experts and academics to testify based on their knowledge and areas of expertise. For example, one expert witness who had conducted extensive research on the LRA shared this information before the court, while another expert provided an analysis of DNA results of Ongwen and his children. It appears the use of experts has not gone over well with some members of the public, who view them as outsiders.

“I don’t like the type of witnesses who are appearing to testify in the court. Many who are calling themselves experts have no practical knowledge of what happened in northern Uganda and what it means to be a victim, but they are the ones who are being taken to The Hague to attend the trial. This in a way hinders truth and fairness in the court,” said Vincent.

“There should be transparency in the way they select witnesses to go and testify in The Hague. This is to enable the true victims to be the actual witnesses other than taking people who have never experienced Ongwen’s atrocities,” added Beatrice.

Richard, a resident of Gulu town said, “How can we know that the people testifying are the real victims and not someone who just heard about the experience?”

As was the case in 2017, many community members continued to express dissatisfaction with the distance from courtrooms of The Hague and the public in Uganda. Many people continued to express regrets that the trial had not been held in Uganda, a factor they felt limited the participation of some victims who wanted to be physically present during hearings.

“I don’t like the fact that the trial has been taken so far [away] in The Hague. This has prevented victims from physically accessing the court trial,” said Beatrice.

Geographical representation and coverage was another area of concern expressed by community members. Some felt the ICC was overly focusing its outreach in the locations where Ongwen is accused of committing the crimes he is charged with (Pajule, Lukodi, Abok, and Odek), at the expense of other locations where Ongwen’s victims are also located. Others, like James Engemu, a civil society representative in Teso, felt the ICC’s attention was only focused on Acholi sub-region in northern Uganda.

“The ICC has not fully covered the greater northern region but only selected a few areas in Acholi, and yet the whole north suffered. So for us here in the east, we feel abandoned,” said James.

In addition, other community members felt that the ICC also needed to investigate Ugandan government actors and in particular the UPDF. Accountability of the UPDF for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Uganda continues to be an issue of debate in communities, despite the ICC’s position that the evidence available is not sufficient to warrant a prosecution.

“The ICC has not investigated the Uganda government, and there is little hope if this will be done. For example in Teso there was [allegedly] helicopter gunship bombing by government soldiers, which left so many people dead, and no one is saying anything about it,” said James from Teso.

Community members also listed improvements that they want to see in 2018. As expected, many reiterated their calls for a faster trial process, arguing that the end of the trial would put victims’ minds at peace in the event of a ruling in their favor. Others called upon the ICC Trust Fund for Victims to consider offering material support and interim reparations to victims during and after the trial. They argued that many victims are aging and may die before conclusion of the trial. The community members also recommended the organization of regular public dialogues and public screenings in areas outside of the case locations, arguing that the ICC is overly focusing on only the four locations in which Ongwen is accused of committing crimes while victims in other locations also want to follow the trial.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda and South Sudan 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.