On April 12, 2018, the last prosecution witness in the trial of Dominic Ongwen presented his testimony, ending the prosecution’s side of the case. This article presents perceptions of community members in northern Uganda on the prosecution’s performance. The perceptions explore whether community members are satisfied with the overall performance of the prosecution, their choice of witnesses, the evidence adduced, and what they liked or did not like about the trial so far.
Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) since December 2016. He is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual and gender based crimes, committed from 2002 to 2005. Over 60 prosecution witnesses have testified against him since the start of the trial.
The public in northern Uganda has long been divided on whether or not the ICC trial against Ongwen should go forward. These divisions were apparent in the perceptions presented below. Asked to comment on the overall on the performance of the prosecution during the trial, community members had varied views.
Kennedy, a community member from Lukodi, was satisfied: “I have been following the trial, and I believe that the prosecution proved that he truly committed the atrocities here in Lukodi.”
Fred, who works for a civil society organization (CSO) in Gulu, said, “I think I don’t have any problem with the prosecution team, but my worry is that most of their issues will be out argued by the defense team.”
Pamela, another CSO worker in Gulu, also thought the prosecution had performed well. “I think the prosecution’s performance was based on facts, and it was fair. Ongwen was given the freedom to speak in his local language,” she said.
However, James, a CSO worker from the Teso sub-region, felt aggrieved that the focus of the trial had been mostly on the Acholi sub-region. “The performance in terms of percentage for me is about 50 percent because the proceeding were only based in Acholi and Lango sub-regions leaving out West Nile and Teso sub-regions,” he said.
Sunday, a journalist living in Gulu said, “To me, the prosecution team has done a great job for bringing its case to an end because many people did not think they would reach this point due to the many challenges that they faced and criticisms against the ICC. On the other hand, there are things that they never addressed. People wanted the trial to be held in Uganda, but they [the ICC] paid a deaf ear.”
Vincent, a community member from Lukodi felt the prosecution had done a fair job. “Generally it was not so bad. They have been updating and giving feedback both from the victim’s side and the prosecution’s side, which I think is a great success.”
Samuel, another resident of Gulu, also thought the prosecution had done a good job. “I can say that the performance has been excellent in comparison to our courts in Uganda. The prosecution team has managed to give audience to all the witnesses, and this only takes a very organized team to do that.”
Asked if they felt that the prosecution team had done a good job in calling the right witnesses, community members again had varied reactions, although most answered in the affirmative.
“Yes, they chose the right witness. Some of them witnessed what Ongwen did and some of them even experienced the crimes Ongwen committed. So I believe the prosecution team chose the right witnesses,” said Kennedy.
Fred disagreed. “The prosecution has not done a thorough job in calling its witnesses. For example, Tim Allen presented himself as a technical person in Mato Oput where he messed up by saying that Mato Oput started during the time of the war, which is very wrong,” he explained.
In Pamela’s opinion, “I would not say they have achieved 100 percent. For me generally the greatest achievement was the charges of sexual and gender based violence that were brought against Ongwen. It was the first time the ICC criminalized the cases of forced marriage leading to forced pregnancy.”
James also felt the prosecution had done a good job. “I feel that it was a fair performance mostly because the victims were consulted and even their lawyers were given chance to interact with both the prosecution team and the victims themselves.”
“A trial cannot be completed without bringing forth witnesses. I think this was a good performance by the prosecution side. I also know that the defense team are organizing to bring their witnesses to testify, but in my opinion the prosecution team did their part,” said Vincent.
Asked to state what they liked about the prosecution’s performance, community members highlighted the following.
Kennedy said, “I like the fact that this trial is causing fear to those who committed atrocities and those who are planning to commit atrocities. It has led to respect for human rights.”
For Pamela, the opportunity for victim participation was the highlight. “I like that there was high level of victim participation. Even the screening equipment that was distributed to communities improved participation which was a good thing,” she said.
James liked the fact that the trial had started and proceeded on time. “What I liked was that when Ongwen was arrested, the court proceedings kicked off immediately.”
Sunday agreed with James, “I liked the fact that all the trial proceedings went on as they had planned and did not fail on some days. The smooth running of the court showed they were prepared for this case and were determined to take it to the last point of its judgement.”
Asked to state what they disliked about the prosecution’s performance, community members highlighted the following.
“I dislike the fact that the prosecution’s case took so long to be concluded. To me one to two years should have been enough for the entire court process to pass their judgment,” said Kennedy
“In terms of their performance, there are some things I did not like. The prosecution should accept one fact: that the voices of the communities were not taken into consideration. For example, the community demanded for Ongwen to be brought back home and taken through the traditional truth-telling processes,” said Fred.
Pamela noted a lack of complementarity between the ICC and the domestic court in Uganda. “I did not see a very strong complementary role of the Ugandan court in this process, and so I am wondering what the domestic court will do in case Ongwen is found innocent.”
Asked to state if they felt convinced that the prosecution has sufficiently proven that Ongwen should be convicted, some community members responded in the affirmative, while others responded negatively.
“The crimes committed all happened with high levels of impunity, and there is no restorative justice system that can bring back the lost items and people. Therefore, I can say that the ICC has done a great job. The ICC has done a full investigation on the structure, formation and leadership of the LRA, the role of the different leaders, and how the killings were conducted,” said Pamela.
James from Teso said, “Since we have not yet got the verdict, it is hard to tell but in case the witnesses gave true information and it is proven beyond doubt that Ongwen did those things, then he will be convicted.”
Sunday remarked, “To a smaller extent it has done its part. I say this because we cannot rely on only one side of the justice process to determine the whole process. So till we hear from the defense side we cannot fully conclude now.”
“I am very contented about the prosecution’s performance because the information they availed to the court like witness testimonies and recordings of attacks made them build a good case against Ongwen,” said Vincent.
Fred said, “If I am to assign a percentage to their performance then I will settle for 11 percent because the ICC is yet to prove their worth. I mean which other case is there that is more promising than that of Uganda. The Kenyan case stalled. The Sudan case is out of their hand because we have seen Al-Bashir coming to Uganda and flying to other countries without being arrested.”
The end of the prosecution’s case marks a significant milestone in the trial and is a major progression for justice in Uganda. However, as many community members rightly pointed out, the performance can only be evaluated after the defense has presented its side of the case.
Judges have yet to set a date for the opening of the defense case, but it is expected to begin later this year.
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.