Kwoyelo Trial Continues in Gulu; Prosecution to Call 130 Witnesses

On Monday, March 11, the trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), resumed before the International Crimes Division (ICD) sitting at the High Court in Gulu. Over the course of the next four days, the court handled a bail application brought by Kwoyelo’s lawyers, the prosecution made their opening remarks, and two prosecution witnesses testified.

This article summarizes the hearings that took place Tuesday through Thursday this week. A summary of Monday’s hearing is available here.

Kwoyelo is facing 93 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed between January 1995 and December 2005. He has been in detention since his capture in 2008. Justices Jane Persis Kiggundu, Duncan Gaswaga, and Micheal Elubu are presiding over the main phase of the trial.

Tuesday, March 12

On March 12, the second day of the trial, four court assessors were selected and sworn in. They are Ajok Nighty, a resident Gulu Town, Ojok David Oyite, a resident of Lalogi Sub-County in Omoro district, Odongkara Frankline from Pageya village in Bungatira, Gulu district, and Ochan Daniel, a resident of Gulu Town. The court assessors will help to advise the court during the course of the trial.

Day two also saw the prosecution making their opening statement, which was read by Florence Akello. In this statement, the prosecution reiterated their commitment to ensure justice for the victims and revealed their plans for the trial.

“The prosecution has about 130 witnesses, 360 exhibits, pictures, medical notes, videos, newspaper extracts, and other forms of evidence to prove the charges…We shall bring evidence to prove that the accused had intentions by way of common plan beyond reasonable doubt,” Akello said.

The defense chose not to make their opening remarks at this point but reacted to the prosecution’s submission by noting that crimes of the LRA could not be entirely blamed on Kwoyelo. The defense claimed Kwoyelo, who himself was a victim of abduction by the LRA, should not be liable to answer the charges.

“The person being tried is not Joseph Kony, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen, or Otti Vincent who were the leaders of LRA and were indicted for those crimes. Before you is a victim who was not protected but was abducted on his way to school, and the government failed to protect him,” said defense lawyer Caleb Alaka. “We shall demonstrate that the accused did not hold a command position…the prosecution wants to put all the crimes of the LRA on his small shoulders,” he added.

The defense alleged that Kwoyelo tried to escape, and it resulted in the death of his father, Jokodino Omona. Kwoyelo also allegedly sustained gunshot wounds during the botched escape. The defense also said they would prove that LRA leader Joseph Kony controlled everybody using superstition, spiritualism, and military tactics.

The victims’ representative was not permitted to make an opening statement by the judges who ruled that the participation of victims at this stage was not critical.

At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, the prosecution called witness PW1, Mathias Fabious Okumu, who is a senior lecturer at the Institute of International Criminal Justice at Nkumba University in Uganda. Okumu revealed that he had been asked by the prosecution to write an impartial contextual and historical background on the conflict in northern Uganda. His report received no objection from the defense and was admitted into evidence.

Wednesday, March 13

On Wednesday, March 13, witness PW1 continued testifying about the conflict in northern Uganda and its impact upon the population. The witness told the court that his report highlighted four major findings, all relating to human rights violations.

The first finding was that there were widespread atrocities all over northern Uganda and that the impacts continue to be felt to this day. The second finding was that the conflict was characterized by extreme brutality upon civilians, such as mutilations, killings, and abductions. Thirdly, he testified that the conflict situation presented a large freedom deficit characterized by factors such as the lack of essential basic needs and humanitarian assistance. The fourth finding was that there is a dichotomy between traditional and formal justice mechanisms within Acholi culture, however, they should not be treated as competitive but complementary.

Witness PW1 was cross-examined by three defense lawyers. Charles Dalton Opwonya noted that the report was defective and left out many incidents of human rights violations. Evans Ochieng asked the witness about his military background and deduced that Okumu served in Uganda’s military for 24 years until his retirement in 1999. Caleb Alaka cross-examined the witness on the methodology he used for obtaining information for his report and impact of the conflict upon child abductees. The witness revealed that he used historiographic and sedentary research and described in detail impacts of the conflict upon former abductees, noting that many of them suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The defense lawyers also examined him about the structure of the LRA and its modus operandi.

Justice Kiggundu asked the witness why he did not capture issues pertaining violence against women in his report. Okumu responded that he did this to prevent the report from being too bulky. The witness was asked to provide court with the said details later, and this concluded his testimony..

Komakech Henry Kilama, the counsel for victims, requested the court to allow him to cross-examine the witness, noting that there were important issues that touched on the interests of victims. He cited the Rome Statute and Rule 35 of the ICD rules of procedure, which emphasize the importance of the participation of victims in a trial. After a 15-minute adjournment, the court ruled that the counsel for victims must make a formal application for participation, and the court would decide on it.

Thursday, March 14

On Thursday, March 14, witness PW2 testified in a closed session. This followed a request by the prosecution for protective measures, specifically noting that the witness be referred to by a pseudonym and that his testimony be conducted in closed session. The defense did not object to this request but asked the judges to consider allowing foreign journalists to be present in the courtroom, arguing that they did not pause a threat to the witness. The defense request was overruled. The contents of witness PW2’s testimony were not disclosed to the public.

After this, the trial was adjourned to Monday, March 18, when prosecution witness PW3 will testify.

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.