On Tuesday, International Criminal Court (ICC) judges rejected a request by a former fighter in a Ugandan rebel group to testify under a pseudonym and with his face shielded from the public. Judges determined that there was no danger to the witness testifying in public.
The witness was testifying in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander. Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Before Witness P-140 started testifying Tuesday morning, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt delivered an oral ruling rejecting the urgent defense request to grant him protective measures. The judge said, “The chamber finds that the security risk to the witness is of a subjective nature, and no objective risk can be discerned.” None of the measures requested by the defense were granted.
In several trials before the ICC, including the trial of Ongwen, witnesses have testified under protective measure to keep their identities secret. This is because it is often feared that if it were known that these witnesses cooperated with the court, they could face reprisals.
The witness, who gave his legal name as Richard Ebuju, nickname ‘Cobra,’ testified mostly in open court. However, the focus of his testimony was not clear. Ebuju mentioned Ongwen only once, saying the former LRA commander on trial in The Hague was not among the LRA fighters who invaded the eastern Uganda sub-region of Teso.
“We didn’t hear of Dominic coming to Teso,” said Ebuju, who named some LRA commanders who he said were killed in the sub-region by the Arrow Boys militia. The militia was trained and armed by the national army, the Uganda Peoples Defense Forces (UPDF) to help fight Kony’s rebels.
According to the witness, who was questioned by defense lawyer Gordon Kifudde, the LRA were routed from Teso eight months after entering the sub-region.
Ebuju testified that after deserting the Special Force of the Uganda Police in 1986 when the National Resistance Army (NRA) captured power in Kampala, he retreated to Teso, where he joined the Uganda People’s Army (UPA) rebel group that fought government forces.
The UPA top commander, Francis Eregu, was his village-mate, instructor in police training school, and recruiter into the rebellion. The witness said at some point, the UPA and LRA fought jointly against government forces, and he personally saw Kony in Teso.
Judge Schmitt asked the witness about his impression of Kony.
The witness responded, “Kony is a soft spoken guy. He speaks with dignity. He doesn’t make noise anyhow. He doesn’t laugh anyhow. But … Kony has strict orders, and the moment he says it’s an order you must go by what he says, failure of which he can declare you dead.”
Ebuju recalled an incident when he was part of a group led by Kony, comprising UPA and LRA fighters, which was moving from Teso to Acholi. “He told his fighting force that ‘we’re going with the visitors home so whether we meet the enemy there is no withdrawing. Whether we’re fighting through government barracks, fight and overrun, no withdrawing’. And that’s what we did. That’s when I learnt he was not a joking fellow.”
The prosecution and victim’s lawyers had no questions for the witness. On various occasions, the judge restrained the defense lawyer from questioning the witness about spiritual beliefs in the UPA and the LRA. He said judges were aware of issues of spirits in the groups and what the witness was going to say.
The witness also testified that a team comprising UPA and LRA rebels went to Kenya where they were given ammunition and shells for rocket-propelled grenades in an operation coordinated by UPA’s Musa Ecweru, who is currently a minister in the Ugandan government. Asked by the judge who gave them the ammunition, the witness responded, “It was the Kenya government providing us those weapons.”
Meanwhile, defense lawyer Thomas Obhof said Witness D-108, who was scheduled to testify next, had informed the defense that he was working on securing school fees for his seven children and declined to travel before he has secured it. He said although the witness was still keen to testify, it was not unknown when he would be available.
Similarly, while Witness D-136 was until last week preparing to travel to The Hague to testify, due to unnamed “political implications,” the court’s Victims and Witnesses Unit (VWU) withdrew his passport. Obhof said a third witness that had been scheduled to testify in this period died two weeks ago
Trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert said the prosecution was disappointed “as we are all keen to get on with this trial.” In turn, the judge asked the defense to try and have one of its witnesses testify by video link this Thursday or Friday.