A former member of the high command of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that in 2012 he used FM radio to appeal to Dominic Ongwen, who is on trial at the ICC, to leave the LRA.
Francis Okot told the court he did this soon after he had left the LRA. He said he was not pressured to make the appeal to Ongwen. Okot said he made the appeal despite Ongwen holding a higher rank in the LRA than he did.
Okot testified on November 6 in the trial of Ongwen, a former LRA commander who has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he allegedly committed between July 2002 and 2005. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
During his testimony on November 6, Okot said he worked in Control Altar, the name given to the LRA’s high command, for 16 years until he escaped the LRA in 2012. He said he was not a high-ranking member of Control Altar, but he did say he served at one time as commander of The Yard. This is the unit in charge of spiritual affairs in the LRA.
When she cross-examined Okot, prosecutor Yulia Nuzban asked him about the appeal he made on FM radio after he left the group and returned to Uganda in 2012. Nuzban asked whether he assured Ongwen that the government did not plan to kill anyone who escaped the LRA. He said he did.
“But you did not mention (LRA leader) Joseph Kony’s ability to predict escape at all, did you?” asked Nuzban.
“No, on that I did not mention,” replied Okot.
“If it was important why didn’t you mention it at that time?” asked Nuzban.
“Because people were now in different places. … He (Kony) is now minding his own business and taking care of his life. People were just living in the bush without anywhere you could see a future,” answered Okot.
Earlier in the day when Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, questioned him, Okot had talked about Kony predicting when senior members of the LRA would escape. Okot gave the example of Otti Lagony and Okello Can Odonga, two senior commanders of the LRA. Okot said Kony ordered their killing after the spirits told him that they planned to escape the group with many men. At the time, Otti Lagony was Kony’s deputy. Okot said Okello Can Odonga was a brigade commander.
Nuzban played a clip of an audio recording that Okot identified as the broadcast of his appeal to Ongwen. The clip was in Acholi. She asked him whether in the clip he was calling on Ongwen to leave the LRA. Okot said that he was.
Nuzban asked him whether in the appeal Okot was telling Ongwen to, “Come out because it is safe?”
“Yes, I told him,” answered Okot.
“Not to fear the ICC?” asked Nuzban.
“Yes, I said that,” replied Okot.
When Nuzban concluded her cross-examination of Okot, Odongo asked him some questions in re-examination.
“You told court that between you and Dominic, Dominic was a much higher commander than you. Now when you appealed to him did you expect him to accept your appeal?” asked Odongo.
“An appeal is an appeal. You send (the appeal) depending on how you feel about it. At least by the time you send a message to such a person you are aware that nothing will happen when that person comes back. And for that reason, I sent that message to him,” replied Okot.
“Did you talk off the cuff, or did you read from a prepared text?” asked Odongo.
Okot said he felt compelled to let others know they would not be harmed if they returned home. “I had nothing in my hand when I was reading that message,” he said.
“Did you ask to go or were you asked to go by some authority, to go and talk to the people in the bush?” asked Odongo.
Okot said he was asked to speak on radio and he thought about it. “There was no pressure on me to say what I said,” said Okot.
During her cross-examination, Nuzban also asked Okot about the time he escaped the LRA. She showed him a flyer with a photograph of Caesar Acellam, a senior commander of the LRA. Okot said he recognized Acellam in the photo. He said Acellam had the rank of major general when he left the LRA. He also said he was able to read the message on the flyer, which was written in Acholi.
“In his message, Caesar Acellam encourages people who are still in the bush to escape?” asked Nuzban.
“That is correct because these photographs, while I was still in the bush, were being dropped by plane and this photograph was one of them,” answered Okot.
“In his message, Caesar Acellam explains that after his escape the UPDF (Uganda People’s Defence Forces) did not harm him, correct?” asked Nuzban.
“Correct,” said Okot.
“And that is the flyer that encouraged you to escape, am I right?” asked Nuzban.
“Correct,” replied Okot.
Nuzban asked whether Kony had any influence on him in 2012 to discourage him from leaving the LRA. Okot said by the time he escaped he had not seen Kony for a year. He said the LRA in Central African Republic was scattered.
Odongo also pursued the subject of the Acellam flyer when he questioned Okot in re-examination.
“Mr. Witness, are you aware that Caesar Acellam surrendered in 2012 and that Dominic Ongwen also surrendered in 2015 and they were not actually captured?” asked Odongo.
“Yes, I am aware because CA came that month … and then I came back in November. And then I met him when I returned … at the border of Southern Sudan and Congo. We met there,” answered Okot.
During his testimony on November 6, Okot said most of the time he was with Kony, they were based in Sudan or Congo. Okot said Kony made rare visits to Uganda. He said one such visit was when Kony heard that Ongwen had been injured and he left his base in Sudan and crossed into Uganda to go and visit Ongwen.
“We didn’t even spend a night there. We continued with our movement and we left them there (in the sick bay). We continued and went back to Sudan,” said Okot.
“There was really not much that he (Kony) did. He also took and left some food items for the sick people,” said Okot, describing what happened when they visited Ongwen after he injured his leg. He said this visit took place in 2002.
Okot concluded his testimony on November 6.