Defense Counsel: Ongwen Followed Kony’s Orders Because he Believed Kony Possessed Spiritual Powers

Defense lawyers representing Dominic Ongwen in his ongoing trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) visited northern Uganda in August to conduct outreach with various stakeholders. Organized by the ICC’s outreach office in Uganda, the defense lawyers, led by Krispus Ayena Odongo and Thomas Obhof, met with various stakeholders from August 17 – 22, 2018, including civil society organizations, religious leaders, and the media. Their visit comes as a precursor to the start of the defense’s opening statement and presentation of evidence on September 18, 2018. This article presents a summary of one of the outreach sessions held in Gulu town on August 18.

In welcoming the lawyers and participants, Maria Mabinty Kamara, the head of the ICC Field Outreach Program in Uganda, noted that the purpose of the meeting was to provide the Defense the opportunity to explain their roles and to highlight the rights of accused or suspects before the ICC, which are sometimes misunderstood by various actors.

“It is therefore pertinent for the defense team to engage with various stakeholders to raise awareness of the need for a justice system that has fair trial at its core and increase communities’ understanding of the important roles of the defense lawyers at the ICC,” said Kamara.

Kamara noted that in several outreach interactions with victims and affected communities, questions often arise about why Ongwen is granted legal representation and why he is given audience in the courtroom. Ongwen’s neat appearance in the courtroom has also been a subject of discussion among victims, because to many victims, he does not look like a detained person who is undergoing trial for alleged heinous crimes.

Ongwen’s lead defense lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, then made opening remarks, noting that the task of defending Ongwen was difficult for him given that his home is only four kilometers away from Abok, which is one of locations where Ongwen allegedly committed serious crimes. This, he felt, exposed him to the wrath of victims who felt he should not be defending someone who had killed their children.

“One day I was attacked for my role in defending Ongwen,” lamented Ayena. “Suppose it was not Ongwen but one of your sons who was abducted, would you prefer him to die at the ICC or for him to be defended?” he asked.

Ayena stressed that the defense would not rely on hearsay as evidence, but would use witnesses who experienced the direct effects of the conflict. He reiterated the fact that Ongwen was abducted at a young age, but despite his victimhood, was still put on trial by the ICC. This, Ayena claimed, amounted to double jeopardy.

Ayena also expressed the opinion that ICC reparations should not only apply in the event of a conviction, but should be made available provided crimes were committed. However, Kamara noted that under the Rome Statute, reparations will only be awarded to victims at the end of a trial and if there is a conviction.

Ayena then brought up the supposed supernatural powers of the LRA’s leader Joseph Kony, a factor he felt influenced Ongwen to follow orders unquestionably.

“Kony perfected his spiritualism so much that he was almost believed to be a God by the other rebels,” said Ayena. “He was able to know what was going to happen and told his fighters that he was the alpha and the omega. Kony dictated when to attack and when to order an attack. He was omnipresent and so if he asked you to do something, you would not fail to do it.”

Defense counsel Thomas Obhof revealed that the defense intends to raise the spiritual aspect of the LRA in their arguments. He said that they planned to call 72 witnesses, 10 of whom would come from the state, and the rest from the affected communities. The witnesses would include former members of the UPDF, LRA, and arrow boys, as well as victims from the affected communities. Obhof also revealed that the defense was not going to limit its evidence to the period from 2002 to 2005, but also examine issues that happened before then in northern Uganda.

During the question and answer session that followed, the audience raised questions regarding the prosecution’s strategy, reparations, and amnesty.

Beatrice, a CSO representative in Gulu, asked what remedies would be made to victims who do not reside in the four case locations of Lukodi, Abok, Pajule, and Odek.

The defense lawyers responded that only victims who were registered to participate in the case would directly benefit from reparations, and described the ICC’s policy with regard to reparations as “myopic” and “not comprehensive.” Kamara responded by pointing out that the Trust Fund for Victims (TVF) is another important avenue for victims to get assistance and livelihood support, and for victims outside the scope of the present case to also benefit from such assistance.

Beatrice also asked whether the defense would raise the issue of amnesty during the trial. Loum, another CSO representative, supplemented Beatrice’s question by asking whether ex-LRA rebels who had already been granted amnesty could still be targeted by the ICC. The defense lawyers responded that they would not rely on the issue of amnesty.

Loum also asked whether the defense intends to call state witnesses. The defense lawyers responded that they plan to call some members of the Ugandan Peoples’ Defense Forces (UPDF) to testify, given that the prosecution had also relied on evidence from them.

Opwonya, a community member, asked whether Kony would be treated the same way as Ongwen before the ICC. Ayena responded that Kony, if captured, would be taken through the same procedure as Ongwen, and the defense lawyers would still be willing to defend him.

Joyce, a CSO representative, asked how Ongwen’s indoctrination in the LRA was significant for the trial. Obhof explained how Ongwen’s indoctrination in the LRA influenced his decisions to follow orders and whether or not to escape from captivity. “Ongwen missed 18 years of his life. If one is abducted by the LRA, and tortured, what do you expect?” asked Obhof.

A community member stressed the importance of conducting targeted outreach to specific groups of victims to minimize discussing their personal experiences in public meetings. He further recommended that the ICC continue to work with local partners to effectively reach victims and affected communities in northern Uganda with updated information about the trial of Ongwen. Kamara responded that the Outreach Program’s success is due to the strategic partnerships it has with various local partners and will continue to strengthen and uphold such cooperation.

Andrew, another CSO representative, wanted to know whether ICC judges would consider Kony’s spiritual powers significant, given cultural differences. Ayena responded that that he found it extremely difficult for the ICC to handle the issues of spiritualism. He said that the defense intends to convince the judges that Ongwen believed in Kony’s spiritual powers. He said that whether the judges believe it or not, the defense would do their best in making the court believe that Ongwen believed in the spiritual powers of Kony.

In addition to the outreach in Gulu Town, Ongwen’s defense lawyers also visited the communities of Lukodi, Odek, Abok, Pajule, and Coorom.

Reactions varied greatly between communities in Coorom, Ongwen’s birth village, and the four other case locations. While the people in Coorom expressed concern that Ongwen was a child when he was abducted and said he should not be facing trial at the ICC, communities in the other four case locations asked the defense whether they were defending Ongwen to diminish their suffering and deny them reparations.

All in all, whether the questions were sympathetic to the victims or the accused person, it was apparent that they understood better and appreciated the roles of the defense and the rights of Ongwen. The high turnout of people at the meetings suggested that the joint defense/registry outreach events were well received by the targeted communities.

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.