Over 10,000 Community Members in Northern Uganda Follow Ongwen’s Trial

Since the start of Dominic Ongwen’s trial in December 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) outreach office in Uganda has expanded its communication approaches to keep the public informed about trial proceedings. At the start of the trial, the ICC outreach office conducted screenings of the trial in the four case locations of Lukodi, Abok, Pajule, and Odek. The court conducted additional screenings in Coorom, Ongwen’s hometown, and in urban centers, such as Gulu town.

However, in July 2017, the Registry of the ICC and Embassy of Denmark in Kampala launched the Access to Justice Project, which the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) funds. The project has enabled the outreach program to increase the screening centers from six to 25, extending deeper into the remote locations where the victims reside in a bid to reach an even wider audience. The ICC outreach office also introduced radio listening clubs to further reach out to more people. These initiatives have enabled over 10,000 people in northern Uganda to consistently receive updates on Ongwen’s trial.

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 IDP camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok from July 2002 to December 2005. His trial is now in advanced stages, with the defense set to conclude its presentation of evidence this December and closing statements from parties scheduled in March 2020.

“We have established 25 video screening centers in remote locations in northern Uganda where the victims and communities connected to the case of Dominic Ongwen follow proceedings from the convenience of where they reside on a monthly basis,” explained Maria Mabinty Kamara of the ICC outreach office in Uganda.

In addition to more screening centers, the ICC outreach office also introduced radio listening clubs as a means of reaching out to more people. A radio listening club is a forum where members of a community are mobilized to listen to a one-hour live radio broadcast, then given the opportunity to call in and ask questions.

“The radio listening clubs were established as a practical tool to respond to the information needs of the victims and affected communities who continue to demonstrate very high interest in following the trial of Dominic Ongwen. The radio listening clubs contribute to deepening community understanding of the communities about the ICC judicial processes, they create more avenues where detailed explanations of the latest updates of the trial are provided, listen to local concerns, and manage expectations,” explained Kamara.  “The radio programs have also provided a wider information reach for the outreach, where the programs are followed and responded to from interested communities far and wider than the limits of the case locations.”

The public in northern Uganda has also reacted positively to these initiatives, noting that it has enabled them to obtain consistent information on Ongwen’s trial.

“For me, I think the screening that the ICC is conducting is giving updates to people who have not been following the trial. It is helpful because when screenings are done this way, people are able to confirm that indeed a trial is going on against Ongwen about the northern Uganda war,” said Kidega, a local leader.

“I think the screenings are important in helping the public know what is happening and how the verdict will be arrived at. We deserve to know because some of us have no other means of knowing what is taking place,” said another community member called Aloyo.

“The trial is happening overseas, and it’s important for us here to follow how the trial is going so that we get justice. The fact that we come to attend means it is important. It is helping the community to know exactly what happened in the past and people are understanding. It is disseminating information very well in the communities because if people just hear rumors, they won’t understand exactly what is taking place,” said Grace.

Florence, another community member noted: “The screenings and radio listening clubs are important because they remind us of what took place in the past. Some of us were present during the war and were forced to constantly flee from one place to another. Through following the screenings, we hope to find out what exactly was happening those days. I think since the program was envisaged to help people know what is taking place, it is important.”

Another community member named Amos noted that while the screenings were important, Ongwen remains a victim of circumstances.

“The screenings are important. However, Ongwen’s trial should be critically acclaimed because he was abducted and taught to commit crimes,” said Amos. “He is paying for the crimes of his boss [Joseph Kony]. In future when Kony is arrested, he should be the one to answer these charges. Nevertheless, the screenings are helping, because some of us who did not even know Ongwen have been able to see his picture.”

Another community member named Rubangakene noted that following Ongwen’s trial was important to keep the public informed about how the final verdict would be arrived at.

“The screenings are important because after the trial Ongwen may come back home, and it will be important for people to know that he has gone through a trial. The screenings are therefore helping community members to know and understand what is taking place in the Netherlands,” said Rubangakene.

According to Kamara, the increased screenings and radio listening clubs have enabled close to 10,000 people to follow the trial and better appreciate Ongwen’s trial.

“As a result of these initiatives and many other outreach initiatives, the communities now understand better and appreciate the importance of having opportunities to dialogue and exchange information about the case of Ongwen as a matter of great interest… An estimated 10,000 local community members in the four case locations, in Gulu town, as well as Coorom, where Ongwen originates, directly participate in these activities on a monthly basis,” said Maria.

“We are able to realize these gains through the collaborative efforts of our parish network of focal point persons who assist in the implementation of the activities in the beneficiary communities, as well as civil society partners who facilitate the programs in Gulu, namely Foundation for Justice and Development Initiative (FJDI), Uganda Women Action Programme (UWAP), and Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP).”

With closing statements in Ongwen’s trial scheduled for early next year, increased screenings and outreach by the ICC will be crucial in keeping the public informed and prepared for the judgment that will follow.

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