When he is away from the courtroom, Dominic Ongwen plays football, shares meals with his fellow detainees, and works at the International Criminal Court (ICC) detention center.
Ongwen’s life at the detention center contrasts with his years as an escort, fighter, and commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). He has been at the detention center for the past four years.
Shortly after his surrender in the Central Africa Republic in January 2015, Ongwen was handed over to the ICC in fulfilment of an arrest warrant issued in July 2005. He attends most hearings of his case because the ICC’s founding law, the Rome Statute, does not allow someone to be tried in absentia.
Details of Ongwen’s life at the detention center have emerged from an interview a former detainee gave to an African current affairs magazine; an interview with his lawyer; and from court filings.
In a recent interview with the Jeune Afrique magazine Charles Blé Goudé shared some details about life at the ICC detention center. A former Youth Minister in Ivory Coast, Blé Goudé had been at the detention center for nearly five years until he was acquitted in January this year. He was held at the detention center after his arrest in 2014.
Blé Goudé told the Paris-based magazine that is published in French he was a barber and a cook at the detention center.
“Laurent Gbagbo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, Bosco Ntaganda, Dominic Ongwen…we are family now, our bonds are sacred. For five years we shared everything, we ate and played football together,” Blé Goudé told Jeune Afrique. The interview, which covered other subjects as well, was published in Jeune Afrique’s June 9-15 edition.
Ongwen playing football with former government officials, such as Gbagbo, Blé Goudé, and Bemba, contrasts with his time serving in the LRA where he rarely would have played football. Ongwen would certainly have not played games or shared meals with former or serving top government officials during his time with the rebel group.
Blé Goudé was on trial at the ICC together with Gbagbo, a former president of Ivory Coast. They were both acquitted in January, but they are on conditional release pending an appeal that the prosecution intends to file against their acquittal.
The Appeals Chamber acquitted Bemba in June last year. Before his arrest and appearance at the ICC in July 2008, Bemba was a senator in the Democratic Republic of Congo and had served as a vice-president of the country as well.
Ntaganda was convicted in July this year. Between 2009 and 2012, Ntaganda was a general in the national army of Congo. The following year, 2013, he surrendered to the American embassy in Rwanda and asked to be transferred to the ICC, which had two outstanding arrest warrants against him. ICC judges convicted Ntaganda for crimes he committed as a rebel leader in the eastern Congolese district of Ituri between 2002 and 2003.
Apart from playing football and sharing meals with his fellow detainees, Ongwen regularly does “light cleaning” and other work that earns him an income while he is at the detention center.
This also contrasts with Ongwen’s former life in the LRA. From the testimony of dozens of witnesses, LRA commanders had boys and girls to do any cleaning or household chores for them.
Information about Ongwen working in the detention center and earning an income is in a request his lawyer, Krispus Ayena Odongo, made to Trial Chamber IX earlier this year. In the filing, Odongo asked the chamber to order the prosecution and the Registry to share with the defense – without undue delay – information about Ongwen’s children and the mothers of those children.
Some of the mothers of Ongwen’s children are prosecution witnesses, which is why the prosecution would have information about their well-being and that of their children. These women testified during the pre-trial phase of the ICC proceedings against Ongwen. Their testimony was closed to the public, but that testimony is now part of the trial record under Article 56 of the Rome Statute.
The mothers of Ongwen’s children testified in connection with the sexual and gender-based crimes Ongwen has been charged with. Ongwen has been charged with a total of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including 19 counts related to sexual and gender-based crimes. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
In the January 18 filing, Odongo argued that Ongwen needed to know about the welfare of his children because this contributed to his well-being at the detention center. He said this was part of the Mandela Rules. These rules, named after the late South African president Nelson Mandela, are the minimum standard of treatment the United Nations prescribes for prisoners.
“Despite his detention, and even where his contribution is not known by his family Mr Ongwen has demonstrated a consistent concern for the well-being of his children and family along with willingness to send assistance from what he earns working at the Detention Centre,” said Odongo in the filing.
Following-up on that issue raised in the filing about Ongwen’s willingness to send assistance to his children from his earnings at the detention center, the International Justice (IJ) Monitor asked Odongo some questions via email.
Odongo told IJ Monitor that Ongwen earns 25 euros a week for “light cleaning and other custodial duties which are not strenuous or stressful.” He said Ongwen had been doing this work since he was transferred to the ICC in January 2015.
On the question of why a detainee should be allowed to work in the detention center, Odongo said work made it easier for “inmates to cope with their surroundings and allows them to ‘pass their time’ in detention easier.”
“The more relaxed prisoners are, the easier the job is for correctional officers and the fewer correctional officers needed (hence, less burden on the tax payers),” Odongo told IJ Monitor.
“Additionally, it allows a detention facility to save money on these services. For someone to enter into a secure area like a prison, those persons will be subject to an initial security clearance check and random ones after being hired,” said Odongo.
On the question of why a detainee should be paid for the work they do, Odongo said it was part of the regulations of the ICC Registry.
“It is a fundamental right that persons are paid to work,” Odongo told IJ Monitor. He elaborated by quoting the Regulations of the Registry.
“Under Regulation 163 of the Regulations of the Registry at the ICC, ‘A detainee person who chooses to work shall be paid at rates to be determined by the Chief Custody Officer in consultation with the Registrar and may use his or her earnings to purchase items for his or her own use … or may transfer such earnings in whole or in part to his or her family or to the Trust Fund for Victims’,” Odongo elaborated.
In response to questions from IJ Monitor, the ICC Public Affairs Unit declined to discuss Ongwen’s case but offered a general response on detainees and work they may choose to do at the ICC detention center.
“All detained persons have the opportunity to do work on a voluntarily basis in the detention center and they can earn a basic fee per week for that work which they can spend on themselves or on their family as they so wish,” said the ICC Public Affairs Unit.
The detention center is not open to the media or the public, but last year journalists were granted rare access to the facility. For details of what journalists were able to see and learn during that visit, here is an article about the detention center posted on Justice Hub.