Prosecuting Ongwen is Double Punishment, Says Bishop Macleod Baker Ochola

Bishop Macleod Baker Ochola is the retired Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Kitgum, located in northern Uganda. He is a founding member of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), an inter-faith religious forum in northern Uganda that was active in advocating for amnesty and forgiveness of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) combatants. Bishop Ochola played an active role in advocating for peace in northern Uganda and has been outspoken against prosecution of former LRA combatants. In this interview, conducted by Lino Owor Ogora on behalf of the International Justice Monitor, Bishop Ochola restates his sentiments on the need to forgive Dominic Ongwen, who is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Ongwen is a former commander of the LRA who is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former IDP camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok in northern Uganda. His trial at the ICC, which began in 2016, is now in advanced stages, with the defense likely to conclude its presentation of evidence this December.

Below are Bishop Ochola’s perspectives on Ongwen’s trial.

Lino Owor Ogora (LO): In your opinion, how has Ongwen’s trial has gone so far? What has gone well and what are the shortfalls?

Bishop Ochola (BO): We have already made our position very clear to the international community. We sent a written document to the ICC saying that Ongwen is a victim of circumstances because he was abducted while still a child and then he was forced, conditioned, and subjected to kill for the LRA. We are not denying that he killed. That is not what we are saying. We are saying he was forced to kill by the LRA and therefore he should not be tried by the ICC. If anything, he should be brought to the community to go through the process of reconciliation. Whatever is taking place at the ICC is as a violation of his human rights.

LO: What about the alleged victims of his crimes and those who support his trial? What do you think should be done for them?

BO: What we are saying is that Ongwen has been subjected to killing. He became a killing machine in the LRA. He is like a gun that is used to kill somebody. You do not take the gun to court. You take the person who uses the gun to kill because the intention of killing someone comes from the heart and not from the gun. Ongwen had to become a killing machine in the hands of the LRA. So he cannot be accused killing. If anything they [the ICC] should accuse the LRA because it was the LRA responsible for subjecting children to kill other children.

LO: In your opinion, who should be tried?

BO: The people who should have been tried is also subject to question, however, they include people who were really responsible for the LRA like Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, and Sam Kolo and those who joined the LRA when they were already grown up. Those are the people who should be responsible.

LO: Ongwen is already on trial anyway, and that cannot be reversed. Despite your position, do you feel his trial can bring justice to the people of northern Uganda?

BO: We have already said that the trial is wrong. When you put the wrong person on trial then there can be no justice. The trial is foreign according to our justice system, so we believe if justice is to be attained then we should go to the root cause of the war in northern Uganda. The root cause is not Ongwen.

LO: One day Ongwen may return to the community. What will religious leaders do to ensure he re-integrates?

BO: Since Ongwen is a victim of circumstances, he can come back and be rehabilitated by admitting what he did in Lango, in Acholi, in Madi, in Sudan, in Congo, and Central African Republic so that the Acholi elders can take the initiative to go and reconcile with the people whom the LRA attacked. That is possible.

LO: Do you think people will forgive him and accept him back in the community?

BO: The Acholi community strongly believes that Ongwen is a victim of circumstances. That is the point. If he is a victim of circumstances, you do not punish him. His humanity has already been destroyed by the LRA. He was directed to kill. His humanity was destroyed. That is how people look at the children who were forced to commit atrocities. Even the girls who were raped by the LRA and forced to bear children were victims of circumstances. They were subjected to powers beyond their control. So you cannot punish them twice.

LO: Ongwen’s mental status has been a subject of debate during the trial. What is your comment on this?

BO: Ongwen was forced to kill…That destroyed his humanity. That is why we call him a victim of circumstances. If his head does not work well now, it is true because his humanity has been destroyed. If the medical team says that his brain does not work, it could be true because of what he went through.

LO: The aspect of the spirituality of Kony has also come out strongly during the trial. Do you think this could have influenced Ongwen to commit crimes?

BO: No. If you use the word ‘influenced’ then it would mean that Ongwen was in his right mind. Ongwen and others were forced, conditioned, and subjected to killing. It was not a normal situation where someone plays with your mind and influences you to do something. In Ongwen’s case it was force. So we cannot bring another context into this matter.

LO: Do you subscribe to the opinion that Kony had spiritual powers?

BO: No. It is the LRA as an organization that forced children to commit atrocities. That is why they preferred to abduct children. If a big person like me was abducted and told to kill, I would not allow to do so. But the child has a mind that is not mature enough and can be destroyed, like in the case Ongwen, and all these other children.

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.