A survivor of a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack on the Pajule camp for internally displaced people (IDP) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) he does not recall seeing Dominic Ongwen among the commanders who met after the attack.
Santo Oweka denied that a year after the Pajule attack he told Ugandan police Ongwen was one of the commanders he saw meet after the attack. He said this when prosecution lawyer Colin Black cross-examined him about a statement he gave to Ugandan police in October 2004. Oweka testified on Thursday, June 6, and Friday, June 7, in the ICC trial of Ongwen, a former LRA commander.
Oweka told the judges that he was abducted during the attack on Pajule, which he said took place in the early hours of October 10, 2003. Ongwen has been charged with 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the Pajule attack. In total, he has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On Thursday, June 6, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo questioned Oweka. Odongo asked him about a meeting the LRA held after the Pajule attack, which the then LRA deputy leader, Vincent Otti, addressed. Oweka called the meeting, RV, or rendezvous, which is the term the LRA used. He said it took place in Lela Ogul hours after the attack.
“Did you ever met Dominic Ongwen, otherwise popularly known as Odomi, lapwony, Odomi?” asked Odongo.
“I remember him,” replied Oweka.
“With benefit of hindsight, do you remember seeing him at the RV where you were addressed by Vincent Otti?” asked Odongo.
“Well, I don’t recall,” answered Oweka.
Oweka went on to testify that the first time he met Ongwen was some time after the Pajule attack when he was sent to see a commander called Lapaico, who he discovered was his brother-in-law. Oweka said Lapaico was married to his sister and at home they knew him by a different name. He said after they talked, Lapaico sent him to Sinia brigade to Ongwen.
Oweka testified that he stayed in Sinia for about a week before he returned to the brigade he was first assigned to, Gilva. He said while he was with Sinia what he noticed about Ongwen was, “there was something wrong with one of the legs or one of the thighs. He was not walking normally.”
“From the little you saw … could you have missed identifying him if he was at the RV that addressed by Vincent Otti?” asked Odongo.
“If I had seen him, I would have remembered, but I did not see him,” said Oweka.
On Friday, June 7, Black questioned Oweka about his testimony that he did not see Ongwen at the meeting of LRA commanders after the attack on Pajule.
“Before your abduction, you had not met the accused?” asked Black.
“Never,” said Oweka.
“You had not seen him before, never heard his name before?” asked Black.
“I had not seen him,” said Oweka.
Later, Black asked Oweka about a statement he gave to officers from the Pajule police station. Oweka confirmed his signature on a statement to the police dated October 28, 2004. Initially Oweka testified that the statement was not his alone. He said it was a compilation of interviews the police did with several former LRA abductees who were at a reception center run by Caritas. He then said he was among those who were also interviewed individually.
Black read to Oweka an excerpt of his statement in which he is quoted to have said that when the LRA and their abductees reached the meeting place they found many commanders. In the excerpt Black read out in court, Oweka named Otti, Raska Lukwiya, and Odomi as among the commanders who were present at the meeting. Black asked Oweka whether this was accurate.
“That is not correct,” replied Oweka.
Black went to ask Oweka whether the meeting referred to in his statement to the police was the one he had testified earlier took place in Lela Ogul. Oweka said it was. Black also asked Oweka to confirm that Odomi is how Ongwen was known as while in the LRA. Oweka confirmed this.
“It appears in October 2004 you told the police that Odomi was at the RV in Ogul, is that right?” asked Black.
“That is not correct,” answered Oweka.
“Can you offer any explanation how the name Odomi would have gotten into this statement?” asked Black.
“Well, I don’t know,” replied Oweka.
Black then asked him whether it was possible any of the other people the police interviewed could have given a statement that Odomi was at the meeting in Lela Ogul.
“Well, I do not know because while at the reception [center] we were many, so I do not know.” replied Oweka.
When Black concluded questioning Oweka, Odongo re-examined him. Odongo asked him about the other people who the police interviewed. He also asked Oweka whether there were people from other organizations present during the interviews.
At one point the lead prosecutor in Ongwen’s trial, Benjamin Gumpert, rose to object to some of the questions, saying they were leading. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said he agreed and rephrased the question.
“Do you have any recollection on that day, how the situation was?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“What was happening was that the Caritas organization informed us there are visitors from the government who are coming to speak us … talking to us … turned out to be the questioning … We didn’t know that they had come to question us,” answered Oweka.
“During this questioning were there other people present than the police that questioned you?” asked Judge Schmitt.
“It was only the staff of Caritas who were there, and they were present during the questioning,” replied Oweka.
Oweka concluded his testimony on Friday, June 7.
Testimony from a Lango Elder
Also on June 7, Bua Okol, an elder from the Lango ethnic group, testified. One of the IDP camps Ongwen is alleged to have had a role in attacking is Abok, which is in the part of northern Uganda where most Lango live. Pajule and the other IDP camps Ongwen has been charged with attacking are in the Acholi part of northern Uganda. Ongwen is an Acholi as is LRA leader Joseph Kony.
Odongo questioned Okol about how someone became a Lango elder and what duties an elder was expected to perform. Odongo also asked Okol about Lango customs and traditions and about whether the Lango believe in spirits. The subject of spirits is something the defense has asked many prosecution and defense witnesses about to show it is one of the ways Kony maintained his grip on the LRA and its members.
“There is belief in spirits. The only thing is that religion is trying to bring about changes to convert people from their spiritual beliefs … We, the cultural leaders, we do believe in spirits because some of the things spirits do depends on your belief,” said Okol.
“How are people who are believed to be possessed by spirits regarded within the community in Lango?” asked Odongo.
“I know both the cultures. I know the Acholi culture, and I also know the Lango culture. The possession by spirits is mostly in Acholi. In Lango it is far and in between. In Lango, it’s mostly illness. Spirits bring illness and make you sick … In Acholi, it’s very strong, the issue of possession is stronger,” answered Okol.
The prosecution did not question Okol nor did any of the lawyers for victims.
Christopher Oloya was the next witness to testify and he began his testimony on June 13.
A transcript of Oweka’s testimony on June 6 is available here. A transcript of Okol’s and Oweka’s testimony on June 7 is available here.