Expert Testifies About Impact of Sexual Violence on the Mental Health of Survivors

A psychiatrist told the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday, May 14, that stabilizing a survivor of sexual violence is a crucial first step in dealing with the trauma the survivor has suffered.

Daryn Scott Reicherter told the court that this may be more important than helping a survivor of sexual violence get medical care. Reicherter was giving his opinion based on his experience in researching trauma and sexual violence in different parts of the world.

He is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and the director of the Human Rights and Trauma Mental Health Laboratory at the university.

Reicherter also based his opinion on his review of transcripts of the testimony of several survivors of sexual violence who have testified in the ICC trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander.

Ongwen has been charged with 18 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged direct and indirect role in sex and gender-based crimes. The charges cover the period July 2002 to December 2005. In total, Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Reicherter is an expert who was called to testify by lawyers representing one group of victims in the trial. This legal team, led by Paolina Massidda, represents 1,501 victims.

On Monday, Massidda asked Reicherter a number of questions about the healing process of survivors of sexual violence. One question she asked Reicherter was whether the environment a survivor of sexual violence was in mattered when treating their trauma.

“I would to say the extent that they remain vulnerable and they remain in an unstable condition, the challenge [of treating their trauma] remains greater. People who have trauma, one of the most important things is stabilizing their current situation, probably much more so than providing evidence-based mental health services,” answered Reicherter.

Many of the questions Massidda asked were to clarify portions of a report Reicherter prepared on the issue of the mental health of survivors of sexual violence. Massidda only asked clarifying questions because the report Reicherter wrote was entered into evidence under Rule 68(3) of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence. This follows a March 6 decision Trial Chamber IX made allowing Reicherter’s report to be entered into evidence under this provision.

Under Rule 68(3), an expert’s report can be entered into evidence in a trial if the expert does not object to the report being entered into evidence and that expert is present in court to answer questions from lawyers and the judges. Reicherter told the court he did not object to his report being admitted as evidence.

Another line of questioning Massidda followed was about rape survivors who did not show signs of any mental health issues.

“The absence of a formal mental health disorder in a victim of rape does not suggest total wellness of the victim,” answered Reicherter.

He said he doubted that a woman could survive rape “without it having some long term negative consequence on their psychology.”

Massidda asked Reicherter some questions about the children of rape survivors, their parenting, and how they were treated by society. Massidda also asked whether the mental health of a rape survivor affected her child or children.

“There is a lot of evidence that the children of people with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] are at great risk of developing mental problems whether or not they experience trauma,” answered Reicherter. He said there is evidence that such children abused alcohol and drugs, among other things.

When Massidda concluded her questions, Beth Lyons, a lawyer representing Ongwen, cross-examined Reicherter. Lyons asked him why he did not interview any rape survivors in northern Uganda.

“The ICC Victims Unit did not want us to do that,” answered Reicherter. Massidda then stood up and told the court that the unit did so for security reasons. Massidda did not elaborate what those security reasons were.

Lyons then asked Reicherter about allegations that Uganda government soldiers had also committed sexual and gender-based crimes in northern Uganda contained in a 2003 report of Human Rights Watch. Lyons said this report was listed as one of the references for Reicherter’s report.

“Why is it not there? And should it be there?” asked Lyons, referring to Reicherter not making reference to the allegations in his report.

“I think that we are focusing on the crimes in this case and not other crimes surrounding this case,” answered Reicherter.

Lyons also questioned Reicherter about a victim raped in the LRA and then by Ugandan government soldiers and how that would affect the victim’s mental health. She also questioned him about low-ranking members of the LRA being given “wives” and how that affected their mental health.

At the beginning of Monday’s hearing Lyons asked the chamber to expunge several pages of Reicherter’s report because that part of the report was prejudicial to Ongwen and affected his fair trial rights. Lyons said those pages included analysis of the testimony of seven witnesses who testified about Ongwen’s alleged direct role in sex and gender-based crimes committed against them. These witnesses testified during the pre-trial phase. The trial chamber, on August 10, 2016, admitted into evidence the transcripts of their testimony using Article 56 of the ICC’s founding law, the Rome Statute.

Massidda objected to Lyons’ request saying Reicherter’s report did not address Ongwen’s liability but instead focused on the impact of sexual violence on victims. She also said that the defense’s request was late because they were given a copy of the report a month ago.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt and his fellow judges, Peter Kovacs and Raul C. Panglangan, left the court and deliberated for a few minutes. When they returned, Judge Schmitt said the chamber rejected the defense’s request but assured the defense that they were alert to protecting the fair trial rights of Ongwen.

Reicherter concluded his testimony on Monday. The next witness was Michael Gibbs Wessells who testified on Tuesday, May 15.