As the trial of Dominic Ongwen continues before the International Criminal Court (ICC), there continue to be mixed reactions and divided opinions among the public in Uganda on whether or not his trial is justified. However, in Coorom village, where Ongwen hails from and where the majority of the inhabitants are related to him, the majority believes that his trial is not justified. Many have also called for him to be forgiven. In this article, which is the first in a three-part series with perspectives from Coorom, the community reiterates their interest and dedication to following Ongwen’s trial and expresses support for the defense.
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 phase of the trial began in September 2018.
Coorom is Ongwen’s homeland, and the majority of people who live there are his relatives or identify with his family. Due to the high level of interest in following Ongwen’s case, the ICC has been conducting public screenings of the trial in Coorom village, and many people have been following the proceedings.
“Many people are following the trial, especially during public screenings where they also get opportunities to ask questions concerning the trial,” noted a community member called Komakech. “The level of public interest is very high. Sometimes up to about 1,000 people turn up for public screenings.”
“We are closely following the trial, and the interest is high. On the days of public screenings more than 400 people come to watch proceedings,” said another community member called Lapolo.
“The last time I attended, the hall was packed to capacity, and other people couldn’t find space inside so they had to remain outside,” said Aluku.
“We follow every bit,” said Otukene. “I am actually part of the team that organizes the screenings. In the beginning we were live-streaming the trial, but the signal was bad so the attendance was affected. But these days we show recorded video clips, and we often register a turn-up of between 800 to 1,000 people.”
Richard, another community member agreed, “At one point during the prosecution’s presentation of evidence, the people attending reduced because the community was angry with the ICC for not taking Ongwen’s family to testify in The Hague, but now people have started closely following the trial,” he said.
“The people have not lost interest,” noted Kakanyero. “In fact, the interest at this point is even higher now that the defense team is presenting because people want to hear what Ongwen’s lawyers are saying as they defend their son.”
Given that Coorom is Ongwen’s home area, it was interesting to explore how the community reacted to the evidence presented by the prosecution. As expected, many community members did not like the prosecution’s side of the case, while others chose to remain neutral or focus instead on the defense.
“People were not convinced by the prosecution’s witnesses,” said Lapolo. “Some witnesses did not speak the truth while others said it was government soldiers who committed most of those offenses. Some witnesses also admitted that Ongwen was abducted at a young age.”
“It is not easy to know what individuals think. But I think the community members do not have any ill will towards the prosecution. All they want is forgiveness. Forgiveness should be part of us,” said Aluku in reflection of community members with neutral views.
Otukene, however, gave a different opinion. “Most people say the prosecution of Ongwen is not fair because he was also abducted like others who are not being tried, so that is why the prosecution is not very much favored. They wonder why the government is not being held accountable,” he noted.
“During the prosecution’s presentation of evidence, many people said that the witnesses were lying about what really happened during the war and most of them testified based on heresy and not what they saw. The community was also very bitter because they were not able to see some of the faces of those who were testifying against Ongwen,” said Richard.
Kakanyero agreed with Richard. “Many people in the community were not satisfied with many prosecution witnesses,” he said. “The community also were not happy about some witnesses who were below age who went and testified, and yet at the time of the atrocities, they were still too young to understand anything happening into depth.”
“The community members say that as a community they cannot do much to change what has already been presented by the prosecution,” said another person called Ayaa. “They are just waiting for the final decision that the court will make in their final ruling.”
In contrast to their lukewarm perception of the prosecution’s case, however, many community members praised the defense and felt they were doing a good job.
“The community is happy with the defense,” said Lapolo. “The overall view is that they are doing a good job, and they hope Ongwen will be acquitted since some defense witnesses were picked from here [Coorom].”
According to Otukene, “We hope that the defense is doing a good job. When they [defense team] came here for an outreach [visit] very many people attended.”
“This community has no complaints in the way in which the defense team is presenting their case,” said Richard in support. “In fact, most people are very happy with the defense team for bringing up issues such spirituality because it will make people believe it existed. Many people have gone through similar experiences and atrocities, which Ongwen suffered. So, for me, I say the defense team so far has done their best in presenting their case.”
Kakanyero agreed with all the above perspectives. “The community feels the defense team is doing their best in presenting their case because the witnesses they are taking to testify are people who know Dominic very well and how he lived in the bush unlike the witnesses that were presented by the prosecution team most of whom never knew Dominic but just heard about him,” said Ongwen.
“We as a community feel that the defense team is doing a great job because they have presented valid witnesses and also the defense team has counter reacted many claims that the prosecution team had presented in their sessions,” said Ayaa.
“The community feels that the defense for Ongwen are doing a great job so far,” said another community member called Ogena. “There have been no complaints from the community since the defense began presenting its case.”
In 2017, community members in Coorom expressed similar sentiments, with many of them calling for Ongwen to be forgiven. Two years later, it appears that these views have not changed despite the several developments in the case.
The next two articles of this series will explore why the community in Coorom want Dominic Ongwen acquitted and an interview with one of his relatives.
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