Second Defense Witness Denies Ongwen Participated in the Attack on Pajule

A second defense witness has told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Dominic Ongwen did not participate in a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack on the Pajule camp for internally displaced people (IDP) 15 years ago.

Sam Opiyo told the court Ongwen was present during a meeting hours before the attack, but he had no role in the Pajule attack. When prosecutor Kamran Choudhry challenged him about Ongwen’s fitness, Opiyo said Ongwen was not “operational” because he was injured.

Opiyo testified via video link from an undisclosed location on Thursday and Friday in the trial of Ongwen, a former LRA commander. 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. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Christopher Oloya was the first defense witness to testify that Ongwen did not participate or help in planning the Pajule attack. He and Opiyo have testified Ongwen was injured by the time of the attack and, thus, did not participate in that attack. However, Oloya’s testimony and that of Opiyo differs in one detail.

Oloya was categorical when he testified on June 13 and June 14 that Ongwen was at a sick bay during that attack. Opiyo testified on Thursday and Friday that Ongwen was present during the meeting in which fighters were selected to go attack Pajule, and Ongwen had no role in that meeting.

On Thursday, Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Opiyo details about the Pajule attack. Opiyo said at the time he commanded one of the battalions of the Trinkle brigade. He said at the time Ongwen was a member of Sinia brigade. Opiyo said fighters from Control Altar, the LRA’s high command, and the Sinia and Trinkle brigades gathered at a place called Wanduku where some of them were chosen to attack Pajule. He said he did not participate in the attack and he was among the people who were left behind.

Opiyo could not say when the attack took place. He was only able to say it happened around either Uganda’s Independence Day [October 9] or Christmas Day. The defense and prosecution have agreed that the Pajule attack took place on October 10, 2003.

“Mr. Witness, now during this time when the group went into Pajule to fight did you happen to notice where Mr. Ongwen was located?” asked Obhof.

“When they went to Pajule, we stayed behind with those of Ongwen,” replied Opiyo.

“What specific reason do you know of why Ongwen wasn’t chosen to go and fight?” asked Obhof.

“I believed I explained earlier that Mr. Ongwen was injured at the time. He had an injury around his knee, so he was not able to go. The rules in the bush were if you had an injury then you did not go to battle,” answered Opiyo.

On Friday, trial lawyer Kamran Choudhry cross-examined Opiyo about what he testified about Pajule.

“When you met Dominic Ongwen at Pajule, he was operational, wasn’t [he]?” asked Choudhry.

“When I met Dominic, he had injuries and with that, injuries, it is an indication that you are not operational…But he was able to walk, although limping,” replied Opiyo.

“Mr. Opiyo, you were aware that on the 18th of September 2003 [LRA deputy leader Vincent] Otti had given Dominic Ongwen the position of 2IC [second-in-command] of Sinia, weren’t you?” asked Choudhry.

“That I am not aware of,” answered Opiyo.

“You are aware that [LRA leader Joseph] Kony asked Otti whether Dominic Ongwen was healthy enough to take up that position of 2IC, aren’t you?” asked Choudhry.

“No, that I am not aware if Kony asked Otti because the brigade where I was was different from where he [Ongwen] was,” answered Opiyo.

“Now you are quite sure that Dominic Ongwen was injured at the time you met at Pajule…you are quite sure of that?” asked Choudhry.

“Yes, that I am aware of,” replied Opiyo.

Several questions later, Choudhry read to Opiyo an excerpt of a statement he gave to the defense in 2015. In the excerpt Opiyo told defense staff that the Sinia and Trinkle brigades met in 2003 or 2004. “I remember it was the day after independence. When we met there Dominic was okay but he walked with a bad limp,” read the excerpt that Choudhry read in court.

“Mr. Opiyo, when you said that to the defense, all you meant was that Dominic Ongwen was okay, but he had a limp, isn’t it?” asked Choudhry.

“When I was questioned, I said I found Dominic was walking with a limp. If someone is limping, you cannot be healthy and limping,” replied Opiyo.

“So, what did you mean Dominic was okay?” asked Choudhry.

“Well, what I said was clear that when I met Dominic, I found he was limping because he had injuries,” answered Opiyo.

“Again, what did you mean by the word okay?” asked Choudhry.

“Well … If I ask you if someone is limping, does that mean someone is okay?” asked Opiyo.

Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt spoke at this point and told Opiyo that he was not in court to ask questions.

Before asking Opiyo about Pajule on Thursday, Obhof asked him about Ongwen’s injury. Opiyo said he did not know how Ongwen got injured, but he saw the injury.

“Could you describe the injury which you saw?” Obhof asked.

“The injury that I saw was on his thigh, close to his knee. I cannot recall whether it was on the left or the right,” replied Opiyo. Obhof asked how long after Operation Iron First Ongwen got the injury. All Opiyo was able to say was when he met Ongwen he was already injured, and this was after Opiyo’s unit had left Sudan for Uganda.

Operation Iron First is what the Ugandan military called its offensive on LRA bases in then neighboring Sudan (now South Sudan), which began in 2002 and continued for several years. Operation Iron Fist also involved the Ugandan military attacking LRA positions in northern Uganda.

“From what you saw of his [Ongwen’s] leg, how bad was this injury?” asked Obhof.

“Based on what I saw the injury was serious because he was limping. The wound was very big. I don’t know whether he actually broke the bone but it was very big,” replied Opiyo.

“Do you remember approximately how long Mr. Ongwen was healing from his injury?” asked Obhof.

“I do not know how long it took for him to heal,” answered Opiyo.

He concluded his testimony on Friday. Witness D-056 is scheduled to testify on Monday, July 1.