Civil Society and Community Members Express Mixed Public Reactions to Ongwen’s Defense of Mental Disease and Duress

The mental state of Dominic Ongwen has been a subject of discussion and interest since he first appeared in a courtroom at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Even before his trial began, the defense notified the court in August 2016 that they would raise the arguments of mental disease or defect and duress, which is allowed under Article 31 of the Rome Statute. They said at the time of Ongwen’s alleged conduct, he was mentally unfit, thus not responsible for the crimes he is charged with.

Related to this, in January this year, defense lawyers asked the judges to rule on how much evidence they needed to present to prove that Ongwen suffered from mental disease or defect and duress under Article 31.

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 has been ongoing since December 2016.

The defense’s strategy to use mental disease and duress as grounds for the exoneration of Ongwen has drawn mixed reactions from civil society and community representatives in northern Uganda.

James Engemu, a civil society representative from Teso noted, “With a mental illness the doctors have to prove whether it is true or not and that is when such an argument will stand. But if it is a trick to let Ongwen off the hook then it is unfortunate. I do not support such an argument at the moment unless a medical report corroborates it.”

Chris Ongom, the chairperson of the Uganda Victims’ Foundation shared the above opinion. “Establishing Ongwen’s mental status will require a psychiatric expert and I am not well qualified to comment on it. Many people have some level of mental problems but only the degree varies. That means even the judges and the lawyers may have some degree of mental problems. Basing on this, I would like the court to determine the level of Ongwen’s mental illness so that it can help in making a ruling.”

However, a former LRA abductee, held the opinion that Ongwen was not suffering from a mental illness. “I do not think it is a mental illness because many of us went through a similar experience like him. We were trained, and we fought and survived. What I know for sure is that he may have been forced to do the things he did, however, I do not think it was because of a mental illness,” she said.

Steven, a radio presenter in Gulu Town found no problem with Ongwen having a mental status provided it could be proven by the defense.

“If Ongwen’s lawyers can provide proof beyond reasonable doubt and back it up with medical reports then they have a point. If it can be proven that Ongwen is suffering from post-traumatic stress, and he does not have the mental capability to stand trial, then the court would need to consider it. The only question at this point is the context in which the defense is considering his mental status. Is it within the context of his time in the LRA, or within the current context of the trial?”

Jackson, a civil society representative in Gulu also viewed the issue of Ongwen’s mental status as legal maneuvering by the defense.

“As always, in legal processes, the lawyers will always try to capitalize on areas where they feel they have more leverage to convince the judges. It is an area that is more appealing and it relates to the broader reflection about trauma. The other avenues seem to be closed to the defense because people do not want to look at the circumstances surrounding Ongwen’s abduction,” noted Jackson

Hellen Acam, a civil society representative from Eastern Uganda also viewed the issue as a defense strategy.

“Defense lawyers are always trying to get their clients off hook and also justify their income. I do not think Ongwen has a mental problem. It is just a defense strategy,” Hellen noted. “Unless they take him for a medical examination and he is proven to be suffering from a mental illness, I believe it is very wrong to pursue that argument.”

Geoffrey, a community member from Odek also thought the defense’s claim to mental illness was not genuine.

“That is a lie because I am sure the Court has already determined that Ongwen is mentally fit to stand trial and that is why the process is going forward. If Ongwen had not been mentally fit he would not even have appeared before the ICC. I do not believe that argument,” said Geoffrey.

Asked how the general public would react to an acquittal of Ongwen on mental illness, many civil society representatives and community members stressed that it would draw mixed reactions and cast suspicion on the court.

“There will be mixed reactions because already in northern Uganda there are people who support Ongwen’s trial, and others who do not,” noted James. “So if there is no concrete medical report that convinces people about Ongwen’s mental status, it will lead to mixed reactions. People will view it as a trick by the defense to acquit Ongwen.”

Others agreed with James and compared Ongwen’s experience to other former abductees, noting that an acquittal on mental illness grounds would raise questions from others who went through similar experiences.

According to Chris, “There are so many former abductees who went through the same experience, but they are now back in the community and living with the people. If Ongwen is acquitted on mental illness grounds the community and other former abductees will begin to ask how the mental status of Ongwen is different from that of others who returned from captivity.”

The former LRA abductee said, “The reaction of people in northern Uganda will not be good because the public wants the truth. People want things to be put right through a revelation of the truth. So acquitting Ongwen on mental illness grounds will draw a negative reaction especially from those who suffered atrocities.”

“From what I have heard in my interaction with the community and other professionals, the reactions will be mixed,” noted Steven. “The people who have been urging the court not to try Ongwen will be happy. However, the victims will react differently because they will never believe that Ongwen did what he did because he was mentally disturbed.”

According to Jackson, “There will be mixed reactions, but it will not be surprising to mental health experts, psychologists, and mental health physicians. It may also open a discussion that could be useful for post-war rehabilitation programs. However, there will be mixed reactions. On the victims’ side, it will mean they do not have any hope for reparations, so they are likely to react in a hostile way.”

“The people will react badly especially in some areas where victims were affected and had hoped to get reparations. The reactions will not be positive. It might even affect the lawyers involved in defending Ongwen. It will not be a good outcome. At least if he wins the case in a different way, for example due to weak evidence from the prosecution, then that is a different matter and people will accept it,” said Hellen.

According to Geoffrey, “The public will demand that Ongwen is medically examined afresh and a medical report that can be accessed by the public is issued. Public opinion in this trial is very important and people are yearning for accountability. At the moment many people do not believe Ongwen is mad. An acquittal on medical grounds would anger the public because the case has now progressed significantly.”

This is the first time since in the ICC’s history that a defense team has invoked Article 31. While public outcry in northern Uganda may be great, Ongwen’s trial will set new precedents if the defense’s arguments concerning his mental status is considered by the judges.

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