Thomas Kwoyelo has denied all 93 charges levelled against him for crimes allegedly committed while in the service of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kwoyelo denied the charges during hearings held before the International Crimes Division (ICD) sitting at the High Court in Gulu, November 12 – 15, 2018. During the same hearings, the ICD also approved the applications of some victims who had applied for participation in the trial. However, a bail application which was raised by Kwoyelo’s defense lawyers was adjourned until January 2018.
The hearings were presided over by the trial panel of three judges – justices Jane Kiggundu (presiding judge), Duncan Gaswagga, and Michael Elubu.
Kwoyelo has been in detention since the Ugandan army captured him in 2008, and his trial has progressed at a slow pace. Kwoyelo first appeared before the ICD in 2011. The start of his trial was delayed due to preliminary objections raised by his defense lawyers, who argued that he was entitled to amnesty under Uganda’s amnesty law, which was valid at the time of his capture. More delays arose as a result of the ICD’s failure to confirm charges against him despite numerous pre-trial hearings.
In 2016, three pre-trial hearings were held in April, August, and September, while in 2017, four pre-trial hearings were held in January, February, March, and July. On August 30, 2018, the ICD finally confirmed the 93 charges against him, thereby paving the way for the main trial.
On September 24, 2018, the main phase of the trial commenced before the ICD sitting at the High Court in Gulu. However, the proceedings were postponed to November 5 following an objection by Kwoyelo’s lawyers that the indictment had not been properly translated into Acholi.
The resumption of the trial, which was scheduled for November 5, was interrupted and replaced by a bail application hearing, following a request by Kwoyelo’s defense lawyers. The ruling on the bail application was then adjourned to November 15, after Kwoyelo’s lawyers told the ICD that they were not ready to proceed due to the absence of people to stand surety for the accused. The judges also ruled that the trial would resume on November 12.
Kwoyelo Denies All 93 Charges
On November 12th, the trial resumed with the reading of the 93 charges, a mammoth task that lasted two days.
A brief interruption occurred when the defense objected to the redacted disclosure of information by the prosecution. The defense was specifically objecting to scenarios where the prosecution used codes to refer to some witnesses in a bid to protect their identity. The defense reasoned that for the accused to understand the charges against him, all aspects in the charges including names of witnesses – not codes – had to be disclosed.
The legal representatives of victims argued that it was almost impossible to know whether the coded victims held a dual status as witnesses and victims at the same time. They therefore questioned when the disclosure would be made.
In response, the prosecution explained that the coding of victims was to protect their identities and was done in accordance with the ICD rules of procedure and evidence which provides for redacted disclosure, delayed disclosure, and non-disclosure.
“It is the only way to protect some of the most vulnerable witnesses since the trial has not yet began. Full disclosure will be done at a later date,” said one of the prosecution lawyers.
The prosecution however promised that they would make full disclosures during the course of the trial, paving way for the uninterrupted reading of the remaining charges.
A total of 31 charges were read on November 12, 2018, and the remaining 62 charges on November 13th. Kwoyelo denied all the charges.
“I have heard and understood the charge. I did not do it and I don’t know anything about it,” said Kwoyelo in response to each charge.
After reading the charges, the trial was adjourned to February 2018, when the prosecution will be expected to make their opening statement.
Court Rules on Victim Participation
On November 14th, the court reconvened and made a ruling on 93 victims who had applied to participate in the trial. The victims’ applications were gathered and presented to the ICD by their legal representatives at the pre-trial stage and were pending a decision from the court. During the pre-trial phase, the presiding judge had ruled that the trial panel of judges would give relevant directions regarding the extent of participation of victims who applied.
The judges revealed that the court had categorized the victims into three categories, A, B, and C. Category A were victims who met the criteria to be admitted to participate, while those referred to as B did not meet the criteria and were rejected, and those referred to as C could reapply upon obtaining further documentation. The court did not however specify how many victims were in each category.
The brief three-page ruling noted that, “The applications received so far have been examined on a criteria determined by the registry of this court with input from all parties. Each application is decided based on a connection being established between the applicant and a particular crime charged in the indictment.”
Bail Application Adjourned
On November 15th, the judges were scheduled to hold Kwoyelo’s bail application hearing, but it was adjourned again due to an objection from the victims’ legal representatives, who argued that they had not been given time to consult their clients on the matter.
“It is in the best interest of victims to be catered for. In all fairness all parties should be given a chance to be heard,” said Kilama, one of the legal representatives.
The bail hearing was then adjourned January 18, 2019.
With the charges against Kwoyelo finally read and a plea obtained from the accused, the stage is set for the main trial to resume in 2019.
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.