The long-anticipated opening of the defense’s case against Dominic Ongwen started on Tuesday 18, September, before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Present to attend the proceedings was an Ugandan delegation comprising religious and traditional leaders, civil society, and media representatives. Back home in Uganda, thousands of people who could not make it to The Hague were able to follow proceedings through live screening sessions organized by the ICC field outreach office in Uganda.
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, Pajule, Odek, and Abok in northern Uganda. Among the 70 counts are charges of sexual and gender-based violence and the use of child soldiers. His trial started in December 2016. The prosecution and the legal counsels for victims concluded the presentations of their cases in April and May 2018 respectively. Following a short recess, it was time for Ongwen’s defense team to respond.
The delegation to The Hague was led by the Acholi Paramount Chief, Rwot David Onen Achana II, and His Grace John Baptist Odama, the Archbishop of Gulu. The delegation arrived in The Hague on Monday September 17, and immediately held meetings with Peter Lewis, the ICC registrar, and members of the two teams of legal representatives for victims. On Tuesday the 18th, the delegation attended the hearings throughout the day to witness the opening of the defense’s case.
“Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done,” said Maria Kamara, from the ICC Field Outreach Office in Uganda. “Therefore, having the delegation from northern Uganda in The Hague, in the ICC gallery to watch the trial of Ongwen, does not only fulfill this principle, but makes the process meaningful and relevant to communities that have been directly affected.”
Archbishop Odama said, “When we came here last year to witness the opening statements of the prosecution, we told the ICC to also give us a chance to hear the side of the defense. The good thing is that the opening statements of both parties have been broadcast and we have been able to witness. Information is very important.”
Back home in Uganda, live screening sessions were held in Gulu Town and the former IDP camps of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule, and Abok. Live relays of the audio proceedings were also conducted on the three local radio stations across northern Uganda, a factor that evidently promoted the participation of victims.
“I liked the screenings and was able to see the trial. It keeps us close and united. I believe in the fact that even if you are wrong you need to defend yourself, so Ongwen deserves a defense. Now we will see what happens and what the judges will decide,” said a community member who attended the hearing in Gulu town.
Stephen Balmoi, a radio presenter in Gulu who was also part of the delegation said, “Being a media practitioner, the information is important for the people back home. People are interested in knowing what is happening here at the ICC.”
“It is good that we got the information first hand from the court other than being told second hand what happened,” said Anthony, another journalist who was also part of the delegation.
“As a leader from northern Uganda I find it important that we were able to attend the opening of the defense’s case in as far as involvement and participation of the people of northern Uganda is concerned,” said Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the Gulu District Chairperson. “It is important that the people of northern Uganda follow closely the proceedings.”
In The Hague, the defense gave its opening statement, outlining their trial strategy and the evidence they would rely on. “We shall prove that Dominic Ongwen’s perceived culpability is a sham,” said Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead defense counsel. “Mean circumstances beget mean people, and fruits rot as they ripen. The mean circumstance in Uganda begot Dominic Ongwen,” said Odongo.
The delegation who witnessed the opening of the trial in The Hague had mixed reactions, although all were happy to have witnessed this historic moment from the courtroom.
“I would expect the defense to rely on evidence and substantiate what they are saying,” said Acholi Paramount Chief, Rwot Achana. “Maybe it will come at a later stage.”
“The defense is bringing good arguments but they should summarize their submissions. They should focus on differentiating between crimes committed by Ongwen as a person and those that should be attributed to the LRA,” said Moses Omiat, a member of the delegation.
“There are questions around the issue of spiritualism. I do not know if the Court will buy into the idea of the whole LRA being under a spell,” said Balmoi. “The defense also brought to light several crimes committed by the Ugandan army, which makes the government culpable. Could the prosecutor launch an investigation against the Ugandan army? However, my fear is that much of what the defense is talking about happened before 2002 so what will be the fate of these victims?
John Sebutinde, an Ugandan visiting The Hague who was also present at the trial, expressed concern with the defense’s lack of focus on victims. “I got the feeling that the defense is not interested in the victims. They talk of the LRA as being amorphous. However, it is a fact that we have victims and that is why this trial is relevant.”
“As rightly observed by the defense, the ICC is handling cases from 2002 which makes the story of the LRA war and the suffering of the people of northern Uganda incomplete. When the story is incomplete, it offers what we call incomplete justice,” said Mr. Mapenduzi.
“I agree with the defense team that the ICC has singled out Ongwen as a surrogate,” Bishop Onono Onweng said. “The 70 counts should have been brought against the LRA and the government of Uganda for failing to protect its citizens.”
In Uganda, there were also mixed reactions from the people regarding the submissions of the defense lawyers.
“The defense lawyer’s allegations are weak. I am not understanding why their main argument is Ongwen being abducted while young. Also saying that Kony’s spirit was the one prevailing over him shows that they don’t have clear [evidence]. Ongwen’s lawyers should come up with clear [evidence] about their witnesses,” said a community member from Lukodi.
“Ongwen’s lawyers are blaming the government for the atrocities in northern Uganda. I do not know if it is going to be considered by the court since the government’s name was not on ICC’s list. The lawyers are finding ways for Ongwen to win but truth and fairness should prevail,” said another community member from Lukodi.
Other community members however agreed with some aspects of the defense’s allegations that Joseph Kony and the Ugandan Government should be the one on trial.
“I agree that Kony is the one who brought all the suffering and the government should work hard to look for Kony and he should face trial,” said one community member.
“Ongwen was abducted. It is government and Kony to be tried but not Ongwen. Ongwen should not be punished. It is the government and Kony to be punished. If Ongwen is punished, it will bring fear to those who returned from the bush,” said another community member.
The defense has revealed a strategy to argue that Kony had spiritual powers that influenced people like Ongwen to follow his orders. The defense allegedly plans to place a witchdoctor in the stand to prove this allegation. Community members in northern Uganda also reacted with mixed feelings to this topic.
“I feel ashamed to hear that the defense is presenting a witchdoctor as a witness,” said a councilor from Lukodi. “It is really shaming. If this matter is ruled in favor of Ongwen then the ICC is useless because for us we do not use witch doctors. What Ayena the lawyer is saying is a lie.”
Another community member however agreed with the lawyers’ allegation that Kony had spiritual powers that influenced Ongwen. “If Kony was my commander I would have had to do what he commanded. I would not have done what I wanted. Even if the ICC says that it was Ongwen’s own decision to kill people, it is wrong. He had a commander and he was obeying him. I believe that Ongwen was also chosen by a spirit and he was doing what the spirit was telling him to do,” said the community member.
Other community members, like Ongwen’s lawyers, expressed concern with the high number of charges levelled against Ongwen.
“Ongwen was charged 70 charges. Can you imagine with 70 charges? I can’t imagine how many years it will take to try him,” said a respondent in Gulu town.
“How can a human being have 70 charges? It’s impossible. And that is wrong,” said another respondent.
Some formerly abducted persons continued to express solidarity with Ongwen regarding the fact that he was abducted.
“I am also a victim like him,” said a formerly abducted person. “He was abducted and taken to the bush at 9 years of age. Imagine if it was you and as a child you are taken into such a system, you would come out like somebody who is not the person you were before.”
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.