The defense of Dominic Ongwen has said some of its witnesses have been intimidated after they testified at the International Criminal Court (ICC) while other witnesses on its list have been too scared to testify before the court.
Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, told the court on Tuesday the defense team had been threatened, but he did not specify the threats. He said the threats and intimidation was the work of individuals he did not name. Odongo did not give details of which witnesses had been intimidated or when such intimidation took place.
Odongo spoke about the threats and intimidation when he made a personal statement to the court about his arrest and release last month in Uganda in an unrelated case. He thanked the court for giving him time to resolve the matter.
On Tuesday, Trial Chamber IX resumed hearings in the trial of Ongwen following the ICC’s summer recess, which ran from July 19 to this past Sunday. Nicholas Ocirowijok, who testified on July 4, was the last witness to testify in the Ongwen trial before the recess. Hearings that were scheduled to take place on July 15 and July 16 were canceled at the request of the defense due to Odongo’s arrest the previous week.
“We have understood that this was something that had absolutely nothing to do with your conduct [at the ICC]. As you already said, since we understood, we gave you, so to speak, also time to resolve this,” Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt told Odongo on Tuesday.
“Suffice it then, Mr. President, to reiterate about the vulnerability of my person and that of our witnesses,” said Odongo. He said some of the defense’s best witnesses did not testify because of the intimidation.
“Mr. President, the political dynamics in Africa, and in Uganda in particular … sometimes get seized by individuals, and not by the state,” said Odongo.
“I can assure you that the chamber will do everything [to ensure the protection of witnesses],” said Judge Schmitt. He said the units of the ICC responsible for protection issues would ensure “that all the witnesses on your list will be heard.”
After Odongo made his statement, Francis Oceng, a former radio operator with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), testified about the work of radio operators, commonly referred to as signallers in the LRA.
Ongwen is on trial for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he is alleged to have committed as an LRA commander between July 2002 and December 2005 in northern Uganda. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts. During the prosecution phase of the trial, several witnesses testified about radio communications between LRA commanders, including reports Ongwen is alleged to have made over the radio about attacks he led or planned.
On Tuesday, Oceng told the court the LRA abducted him in 1994 when he was 24 or 25 years old. He said some time after his abduction someone called Patrick Lumumba trained him as a signaller. He said Lumumba at the time was in charge of signals in the LRA.
He told the court that a signaller’s responsibility was to ensure the radio they were assigned was in working condition and its battery fully charged. Oceng said a signaller would switch on their radio three times a day: at nine in the morning; one o’clock and four o’clock in the afternoon. He said the operator would listen to hear if their commander was being called to the radio. If their commander was needed, then the signaller would alert the commander, who would then take the mouthpiece and communicate with whoever was on the other end, said Oceng. He said if no one asked to speak to the commander then the signaller would just greet their counterpart, exchange pleasantries, and end transmission.
Oceng said that when the commanders communicated over radio they spoke in code. He said that the commanders would often identify who they were by using a call sign. He said they also used a code sheet called TONFAS. Oceng did not state what TONFAS stood for, but prosecution witnesses have testified that it stood for Time, Operator, Nicknames, Frequency, Address, and Security.
TONFAS changed, and it was the director of signals who changed it, said Oceng. He testified that the LRA director of signals had no say when to change TONFAS. Oceng said LRA leader Joseph Kony ordered when TONFAS needed to change, and then the director of signals would implement it.
He said when he was in the LRA it was Lumumba who made the changes, and when he died in 1997 someone called Andaka took over as director of signals and was responsible for managing TONFAS. He said when Andaka died, Michael Anywar became director of signals, and he was responsible for TONFAS.
Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Oceng how a first-time commander would learn how to communicate using TONFAS. Oceng said the commander would have to meet with the chief signaller to understand TONFAS.
“If you do not meet and discuss what these codes mean then that person would not know what these are,” said Oceng.
“Is there is a reason why the codes were kept so secretively?” asked Obhof.
“Yes, because they [the LRA] did not want the government to decode their messages and know what they were talking about,” replied Oceng.
“As you worked as a signaller, in your opinion, how easy is it to learn and attempt to decipher this TONFAS?” asked Obhof.
“It’s not easy,” answered Oceng. He said the commanders understood TONFAS, but signallers did not, even though they heard the conversation commanders had over radio.
“Were there any special TONFAS just for the senior persons in Control Altar?” asked Obhof, referring to the LRA’s high command.
“Yes, they existed,” replied Oceng.
“And would these TONFAS meant for Control Altar be distributed to the individual brigade commanders?” asked Obhof.
“I do not know, but whatever is sent to us would be relating to our operations,” answered Oceng.
“To estimate, how often would these TONFAS change?” asked Obhof.
“It’s difficult for me to determine how often they would change because when I was still there you would wait for the person who is responsible to send them,” said Oceng.
Pubudu Sachithanandan, who cross-examined Oceng for the prosecution on Tuesday, asked him questions about the responsibilities and duties of different ranks of signallers. He also asked him about the call signs that Kony and his deputy, Vincent Otti, used.
“Dominic Ongwen was Tem Wek Ibong?” asked Sachithanandan, referring to a call sign.
“Tem Wek Ibong was Buk [Abudema)]” replied Oceng, referring to a commander who was senior to Ongwen.
“And it’s right, isn’t it, that Madilu was Buk’s call sign?” asked Sachithanandan.
“Yes, he had several call signs,” answered Oceng.
Oceng concluded his testimony on Tuesday. Witness D-84 is scheduled to testify on Thursday.