On Tuesday, Dominic Ongwen’s defense team held an outreach meeting in Gulu, northern Uganda. Present at the meeting were Ongwen’s lead defense lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo, his wife Hilder, case manager Titus Roy Odong, and Jimmy Okwir from the International Criminal Court (ICC) outreach office in Uganda. The audience comprised about 40 people, including representatives of civil society and local leaders in Gulu town.
Ongwen is a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former internally displaced person (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 before the ICC has been ongoing since December 2016 but is currently on break until August 12 for the summer recess.
The purpose of the meeting, according to Jimmy Okwir from the ICC outreach office, was to give stakeholders updates on new developments in Ongwen’s defense, provide an opportunity for answering questions, and create a platform for the public to engage with Ongwen’s lead counsel.
Odongo then introduced his wife, Hilder. He explained that his wife had visited Ongwen several times at the detention center in The Hague, and she would provide a personal account regarding Ongwen’s welfare. Odongo then turned over the floor to his wife before proceeding with his remarks.
Hilder addressed the audience briefly. She spoke of her encounters with Ongwen, describing him as charming, among other attributes.
“Ongwen is a charming, intelligent, and humorous fellow,” she said. “I don’t think he deserves everything that has happened to him, but that is his fate. If a child of nine years is picked and taken to live with monkeys, would he behave like humans?” she asked. “He is a victim who was obeying orders that he had to execute to remain alive. If Ongwen comes back one day to Uganda, he will make a big contribution to his community,” she concluded.
Odongo then took the floor again emphasizing that the defense was “defending a very special person” and that Ongwen’s case is setting a precedence in international law.
“Much of what we are doing as a defense is unprecedented, therefore, we are creating a road for the future,” he said.
Odongo summarized the defense’s case, noting that they have so far called 50 witnesses and are left with approximately 15 to go. He revealed that the defense may conclude their case in approximately three months after the court recess.
“This boy’s story makes me shed tears,” said Odongo as he described Ongwen’s abduction at the age of nine, a fact he said was not contested by the prosecution. “What do you think would become of a child that was abducted at nine years and transcended from a victim into a perpetrator?”
Odongo faulted the prosecution for their false assumption that when Ongwen finally reached adulthood he automatically transformed into a criminal. He described Ongwen’s brutal initiation into the rebel ranks, summarizing it as a process through which LRA leader Joseph Kony “pees on your mind.” He described grueling experiences that Ongwen underwent, including watching an LRA escapee skinned alive and said that the defense would rely on mental defect and duress to argue their case.
“Kony was believed to be omnipresent and was there to monitor every soldier, and there were also…secret intelligence persons present at all times to monitor commanders, and they reported straight to Kony. Ongwen suffered serious mental defect while in the bush, and under those circumstances he couldn’t function well,” said Odongo.
Odongo said Ongwen did not take part in any of the attacks as alleged by the prosecution. According to Odongo, the attack in Pajule was led by Vincent Otti, the attack in Abok by a commander called Kalalang, in Lukodi by commander Tulu, while in Odek it was directly ordered by Kony because it is his home village.
In relation to sexual and gender-based crimes, Odongo noted that the charges were duplicative and defective because the Rome Statute clearly defines forced marriage, and according to that definition, the crime of forced marriage had already been covered by the charges of rape and sexual violence. Therefore, it was not necessary to outline forced marriage as a standalone crime.
“Ongwen did not marry anyway because the definition of marriage requires that the parents of both parties organize a ceremony to confirm the union. But, in this case, it never took place, therefore, forced marriage could never have happened where there was no marriage. Kony forced people to cohabit,” argued Odongo.
Odongo also noted that while amending the counts from seven to 70, Ongwen was not given sufficient time to prepare his response. The prosecution originally charged Ongwen with only seven crimes in relation to the attack on Lukodi IDP camp, however, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda successfully amended his indictment in 2015 after his arrest.
“Ongwen is a person who has suffered triple jeopardy and is about to suffer quadruple jeopardy. First, he lived in captivity, second he was deprived of learning his culture, and third he was imprisoned, and now he is about to be sentenced, if convicted. If Ongwen was your child would you leave him to suffer?” Odongo asked.
The audience was then give an opportunity to ask questions.
“Is it your defense strategy to deny that Ongwen killed anyone?” asked Collins Atiko, an Acholi traditional chief. “Acholi leaders visited Abok, and the reception we got was very frightening because they claimed that the Acholi killed their people. Why are you defending Ongwen, an Acholi?”
“I was asked to defend him just like any other professional would be asked. It is God’s arrangement that I am the one. However, it is partly the role of traditional leaders to diffuse such situations. I don’t know whether Ongwen killed or not because I am only informed by evidence coming to the court,” said Odongo in response.
“Why was Ongwen not given amnesty like other commanders?” Asked Opoka, another traditional chief.
“Ongwen surrendered himself, which was not an easy thing to do,” explained Odongo. “On surrendering he was not given chance to go the amnesty commission, and one month later the amnesty period expired. Nevertheless, about a month ago we applied for amnesty at the Ugandan embassy in Luxemburg based on the…amnesty law and the argument that Ongwen surrendered a month before the amnesty period expired. The ambassador promised to make consultations and respond,” responded Odongo.
“You seem to have a problem with charges being increased from seven to 70. Is this not legally allowed?” asked Balmoi Okello.
“Expanding charges is lawful but duplicity is not allowed,” explained Odongo. “Besides, the prosecution did not give sufficient notice and disclosure for Ongwen to prepare his defense.”
“If Ongwen is acquitted, what will happen?” asked Stephen Okello, a landmine survivor.
“He will come back home. The Acholi community should prepare to receive him ahead of time,” responded Odongo.
“You mentioned that Ongwen did not take part in the attack on Lukodi and Abok. How [do] you know?” asked Okello John Samuel.
“There is a lot of evidence that keeps coming to court. This evidence is at our disposal, and they suggest so,” said Odongo.
“Ongwen’s defense argument opens new wounds because they deny allegations. How is the ICC dealing with that?” asked a religious leader.
“The ICC has specified plans to deal with that. It is why witnesses of traumatic incidents, such as sexual crimes, were called in the beginning to allow their wounds to heal as the trial goes on,” responded Odongo.
“If Ongwen is convicted, what will you do as his defense counsel?” asked a community member called Joe.
“We will evaluate the judgment to see if it is in line with the law. The law allows us to appeal if we are not satisfied a proper assessment of evidence [was done],” responded Odongo.
Joe followed-up with a question about Odongo’s arrest earlier in the month: “We heard news of your arrest recently. What possible impact will it have on the case?”
“Regarding the arrest, some people are trying to tarnish my name. They think my current work is going to make me popular and rich. That incident was politically motivated and meant to humiliate and embarrass me, but I settled it,” said Odongo.
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.
I was lucky enough to attend in person, and in as much as the trial seems to be a lenghty one, atleast the updates from Lead counsel Ayena give a ray of hope that it will soon come to an end and indded justice will be served.
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