A former escort to Dominic Ongwen told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Ongwen did not help plan or participate in a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) attack on the Pajule camp for internally displaced people (IDP) 15 years ago.
Christopher Oloya told the court he took part in the Pajule attack, and Ongwen was at the sick bay where he was being treated for a gunshot wound in one of his thighs. Oloya also said Ongwen had been demoted to the rank of private by the time of the Pajule attack.
Oloya testified on Thursday and Friday last week. He told the court he became an escort to Ongwen when Ongwen was a battalion commander in the Sinia brigade.
Ongwen is on trial at the ICC for his alleged role in the October 10, 2003 Pajule attack, as well as other crimes. In relation to the Pajule attack, Ongwen has been charged with 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In total, he has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
On Thursday, June 13, Oloya told the court he took part in the attack on Pajule, and the LRA attacked it in two groups. Oloya said he was in the group led by a commander called Bogi, which attacked the Ugandan army barracks close to the camp. He said Raska Lukwiya led the other group, which attacked the IDP camp.
“During this attack where was Dominic Ongwen?” asked Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers.
“He was in sick bay,” replied Oloya.
“Just so we are clear, why was he in sick bay?” asked Obhof.
“Because he had sustained an injury,” answered Oloya.
“Was this the same injury you mentioned earlier?” asked Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt.
“Yes, indeed,” replied Oloya.
“What was at the time of this attack Mr. Ongwen’s office?” asked Obhof.
“During this attack, based on my recollection, he did not have any functions or any role. He was in sick bay at the time, but there were rumours going around that he wanted to cross over, he wanted to go the Uganda government, so [LRA leader Joseph] Kony punished him and completely demoted him and he became a private, a regular foot soldier,” answered Oloya.
“This attack on Pajule, from what you heard, who ordered this attack?” asked Obhof.
“Kony,” said Oloya.
“And how do you know Kony ordered this attack?” asked Obhof.
“I found out about this later,” said Oloya.
“And how did you find out?” asked Obhof.
“There is another soldier, one of the soldiers who worked with me who informed me,” Oloya replied.
Oloya is the first defense witness to be categorical that Ongwen was not present during the Pajule attack and offer an alibi for where Ongwen was during that attack. Previous defense and prosecution witnesses who have testified that Ongwen was absent during the Pajule attack have only said they did not see him there or did not hear his name mentioned.
Richard Otim said so when he testified on June 4. Santo Oweka gave similar testimony when he testified on June 6 and June 7. Prosecution witness P-081 also gave similar testimony when he testified on October 4, 2017.
Other prosecution witnesses, such as a former LRA intelligence officer, P-144, have testified that Ongwen participated in the Pajule attack. During his testimony, Oloya was unable to state the date of the Pajule attack, but the prosecution and defense have agreed that the Pajule attack took place on October 10, 2003.
Earlier on Thursday, Oloya told the court Ongwen was shot in the thigh, and it broke during a battle before the attack on Pajule. He said he accompanied Ongwen to the sick bay, or mobile medical unit, and left him there with other escorts. Oloya said Ongwen at the time was a battalion commander in Sinia brigade and held the rank of major. He said he left Ongwen at the sick bay and continued “roaming around” with the rest of the Sinia brigade.
Oloya said he was 10 years old when the LRA abducted him one Sunday in 1997. He said some weeks after his abduction he and other newly abducted people were taken to Sudan where they were trained in military drills and weaponry. He said this training took place in Jebelen where they stayed for about a year before returning to Uganda. He testified that by the time he got to Jebelen he was a member of Sinia brigade.
He said the training was not continuous, and when they were not training, they were tending to farms and growing food for the LRA. He said he returned to Uganda for a while and then went back to Sudan. Oloya said it was after his second trip to Sudan that he was assigned as an escort to Ongwen, who was a battalion commander in Sinia brigade.
“Can you describe to the court your general duties as an escort for Mr. Ongwen?” asked Obhof.
“You would not be given tasks on daily basis, but as a soldier your task would be to ensure the security, his [Ongwen’s] security rather, and that of his wives. That was your major role and every day, from daybreak, whether it is during the day or in the night, that is your task, and you should not forget about that,” replied Oloya.
Obhof asked him what an escort was expected to do when his unit confronted a unit of the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF).
“If there is an engagement with the UPDF the role of the escort would be to make sure he is very close to his commander. If the commander is taking position in the battle he would be there. If the commander is not in the battle he would also be there,” said Oloya.
“Would all of the escorts go to battle?” asked Obhof.
“Not all of them. Some of them would stay back to provide protection to the wives,” answered Oloya.
During his testimony on Thursday and Friday, Oloya had a legal adviser present, Nicoletta Montefusco. Ahead of Oloya testifying on Thursday, Montefusco had applied that the court give him assurances he would not be prosecuted for any self-incriminating evidence he may give. She made this application under Rule 74 of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence.
After hearing Montefusco’s application, Judge Schmitt said Trial Chamber IX declined to grant Oloya’s such assurances because the expected scope of his testimony was not going to focus on his actions while with the LRA. Judge Schmitt said the chamber also noted Uganda’s Amnesty Commission had issued Oloya with an amnesty certificate.
Judge Schmitt observed that the prosecution gave their assurance that Oloya’s testimony would not be used indirectly or directly against him in any future prosecutions. The judge also said whenever Oloya’s testimony would become self-incriminating that part of the hearing would be closed to the public.
This happened on Friday when trial lawyer Pubudu Sachithanandan cross-examined Oloya on behalf of the prosecution. For example, when Sachithanandan questioned Oloya about what he knew about the attack on Pajule, Oloya gave most of his testimony in private session.
In open court, Sachithanandan asked Oloya a number of questions about Ongwen’s duties as a battalion commander. He also named several individuals and asked Oloya whether he knew them and if so, what their roles were in Sinia brigade. Sachithanandan also asked Oloya in some detail about what happened to the girls and women the LRA abducted after their abduction and who made the decisions about the roles of girls and women in the LRA.
After Sachithanandan concluded his cross-examination, Anushka Sehmi, a lawyer representing one group of victims in the trial, questioned Oloya. She asked him about the fact he was 10 years old when he was abducted and in primary school and whether he received any education while in the LRA. He said he did not.
“Were you able to go to school again or receive any training of the sort?” asked Sehmi, referring to the time after he left the LRA in 2005.
“I did receive training, some tailoring training,” replied Oloya.
“And, however, you currently don’t work as a tailor, is that correct?” asked Sehmi.
“That’s correct,” answered Oloya.
He concluded his testimony on Friday. The next witness is scheduled to testify on Monday, June 24.