Witness selection in the ongoing trial of Dominic Ongwen has been a subject of discussion since the trial started in December 2016. During the prosecution’s phase of the trial, community members in northern Uganda expressed mixed feelings about the choice of witnesses and experts who testified. Now with Ongwen’s defense currently presenting their segment of the case, community members in Lukodi have expressed their opinions regarding the witnesses who have appeared thus far.
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 and is currently on recess till January 2019, when the defense will resume the presentation of its case.
Fourteen defense witnesses have testified so far. In this article, community members in Lukodi were asked to state their perceptions about the witnesses. Below are their opinions.
“I am not happy that Ongwen has denied committing these crimes against us,” said Betty, a community member in Lukodi. “I am also not happy about the witnesses being presented by the defense team because I saw video clips of [Kizza] Besigye and President Museveni being played in the courtroom and yet they were not affected by the war and neither were they in the LRA. However, their video clips are being used as evidence on the side of the defense and this has not made us happy,” she added.
Some community members such as Justine wondered about the criteria used for selecting the witnesses.
“These witnesses are not real in the sense that we are not aware of the criteria which was used to select them,” he said. “In some cases, we only hear their voices and besides we do not know most of them. I am shocked about how they are going to testify about Lukodi when they were not actually here during the war.”
Many community members held the opinion that the witnesses were not being truthful in their testimonies.
“All these witnesses are liars because they are not telling the truth about what really happened in Lukodi because they were not here when the atrocities were committed,” said Kenery. “One thing I do not like with the witnesses is their testimony on spiritualism. I have never heard in my whole life a testimony on spiritualism being presented in court by a witness. It is total madness,” added Kenery.
“I feel so bad about the witnesses that the defense team is presenting because they are supporting the crimes that were committed against us,” said Boniface, another community member. “Some of them are even denying the crimes that were committed by Dominic himself which is not a good thing.”
Another community member called Lucy agreed with Kenery. “The witnesses being presented by the defense are all false witnesses because they are not talking about what really happened here. They are talking about government soldiers killing people in Lukodi and yet at the time of the Lukodi massacre the government soldiers were very few and even fled without fighting back at the LRA.”
Other community members reacted to testimonies of the defense witnesses that Ongwen was abducted as a young child, with many dismissing it as a lame excuse.
“I am not happy about the witnesses being presented in the court because most of them are saying that Ongwen was young and yet we know that as a human being, when you grow up, your mental capacity and thinking automatically changes to that of a matured person without even someone telling you to think like a big person,” said a community member called Pilina.
Based on their negative assessment above, the community members were asked if they would consider appearing as witnesses if approached to do so. Many accepted that they could testify but only on condition that they were testifying for the prosecution.
“I am a victim and all I want to see is that justice prevails so I would be willing to go and be a witness at the court, but not on the defense side,” said Betty. “These atrocities were committed against us and so we want to see justice prevail by participating in the trial. I personally escaped death narrowly on the day of the Lukodi massacre,” she added.
“If I am chosen I would be very much willing to go and stand for the truth so that the people of Lukodi get justice instead of many people going to only tell lies,” said Kenery.
“I am very willing and eager to go and testify at the court about what truly happened here and not to support Ongwen’s crimes as the witnesses on defense team are doing,” said Boniface. “I am not happy about how they are supporting Dominic.”
Pilina agreed with all the above but stressed that she would not testify for the defense. “I would only go as a witness of the prosecution but not as a witness of Ongwen because I saw what Ongwen did in this place to our children,” she said. “It was a very painful experience and for the witnesses to say Ongwen did not do anything is rude and disrespectful to us whose relatives were killed in the attack,” she added.
The above stances by the community members and clear leaning towards the prosecution is understandable and likely due to the fact that most of them are survivors or relatives of victims who survived during the attack on Lukodi. As Ongwen’s defense prepares to resume presenting their case in January 2019, it remains to be seen how the community members will continue reacting to their choice of witnesses.
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.