On September 30, the trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander, resumed before the International Crimes Division (ICD) sitting at the High Court in Gulu. The resumption of the trial comes after a break that lasted over two months. In July, judges had granted an adjournment of the trial to allow time for the prosecution to provide redacted information to the defense. In hearings held from September 30 to October 3, the court listened to evidence from two prosecution witnesses who testified about their experiences at the hands of the LRA. This article provides a summary.
Kwoyelo is facing 93 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed between January 1995 and December 2005 in northern Uganda. The Ugandan army captured Kwoyelo in 2008, and he first appeared before the ICD in 2011. However, the start of his trial was delayed due to questions over whether or not he was entitled to amnesty under a Ugandan law that was valid at the time of his capture. When the case finally commenced, three pretrial hearings were held in April, August, and September 2016, followed by three pre-trial hearings in 2017, and two pre-trial hearings in June and July 2018 respectively.
On August 30, 2018, the ICD confirmed 93 charges against Kwoyelo, marking the end of the pre-trial phase. The main phase of his trial started on September 24, 2018, and in November 2018, several hearings in Gulu were held, resulting in Kwoyelo entering a not-guilty plea and a court ruling on victims’ participation, while a hearing on Kwoyelo’s bail application was postponed to January 2019.
On March 11, 2019, Kwoyelo requested a transfer to the ICC citing slow trial proceedings and accused a prison guard of assault. From March 12 to 14, 2019, the prosecution made their opening statements and called their first witness. On March 26, the ICD denied Kwoyelo bail, and the trial was adjourned to July. The trial resumed in Gulu from July 1 to 18 and heard testimony from five prosecution witnesses.
Monday, September 30: Prosecution Calls Seventh Witness
The prosecution called their seventh witnesses, PW7, who was also referred to by the pseudonym “C4” to protect his real identity.
Witness PW7 narrated details of an attack in which he and others were abducted by LRA soldiers under Kwoyelo’s command. According to the witness, in September 1994, at around 8:00 PM in Abera, Pabbo sub-county, LRA rebels attacked his village, looted property, and abducted approximately 50 people. PW7 said that the abductees were forced to carry the looted items across the Aceri stream, beyond the Kilak hills. The journey lasted the whole night, and four people who could not keep up were killed or left for dead, although three later survived.
The witness told the court that when they crossed the Aceri stream, they rested and Kwoyelo addressed them. According to PW7, Kwoyelo said that they would be divided into two groups, and one group would be freed while the other would remain with the rebels. Witness PW7 was among the group that was released. Before departing, Kwoyelo guided them on which path to follow, cautioning them to avoid the route by which they had reached Aceri stream because landmines had been planted on it. Most of the people who remained behind have never returned, said PW7. He told court that he returned home with swollen legs and wounds. After recovering, he moved to Gulu town where he has lived since then.
The witness testified that during his childhood, he interfaced with Kwoyelo with whom he played games, including football. PW7 told the court that he also knew two of Kwoyelo’s brothers who voluntarily joined the LRA.
Tuesday, October 1: Eighth Prosecution Witness Testifies in Closed Session
On Tuesday, October 1, the defense, led by Evans Ochieng, cross-examined witness PW7. Ochieng asked PW7 short questions relating to his education level, occupation, football events during which he saw Kwoyelo, and how he was able to identify Kwoyelo when he addressed them while in captivity. PW7 revealed that he studied up to secondary school level and is currently a peasant farmer.
PW7 said he encountered Kwoyelo in 1994 when the witness was about 12 or 13 years of age. The witness also said he had seen Kwoyelo during village football events in which Kwoyelo participated as a player in the games. PW7 also mentioned that while in the community prior to the abduction incident, he occasionally saw Kwoyelo in the village. Witness PW7 completed his testimony in the morning.
In the afternoon, the prosecution called another witness, PW8, also referred to as “C7.” PW8 entered the courtroom in disguise wearing loose black clothing, a headscarf, and dark sunglasses. Prosecution lawyer, William Byansi applied for protective measures to be given to the witness and requested that the session be held in camera due to the sensitivity of the witness’s testimony. The defense did not object to the use of a disguise and pseudonym but opposed the closing of the session to the public. The judges ruled in favor of the prosecution and granted the use of pseudonym, disguise, and exclusion of the public from certain parts of PW8’s testimony.
While in open session, the prosecution questioned PW8 about his abduction from Abera village in Pabbo. Thereafter, his testimony was conducted in closed session.
Wednesday, October 2: Proceedings Disrupted by Kwoyelo’s Ill Health
On Wednesday, PW8 continued with his testimony in closed session. However, information from court staff revealed that one hour into the proceedings, Kwoyelo fell ill and required medical attention. In the afternoon Kwoyelo was still receiving treatment, so the court postponed proceedings until the following morning.
Thursday, October 3: Eighth Prosecution Witness Concludes Testimony
On Thursday, October 3, witness PW8 completed his testimony in closed session. The court adjourned proceedings until Monday, October 7, when the prosecution is expected to call its ninth witness. No details were given pertaining to the status of Kwoyelo’s health.
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