The trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), resumed this week before the International Crimes Division (ICD) sitting at the High Court of Uganda in Gulu. Over the course of three days, the court heard testimony from four prosecution witnesses, who all testified in closed sessions. The trial was presided over by a panel of four judges: Duncan Gaswaga, Jane Kiggundu, Michael Elabu, and Stephen Mubiru.
Kwoyelo Trial Background
Kwoyelo is facing 93 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed between January 1995 and December 2005 in northern Uganda. The main phase of his trial started on September 24, 2018. The first two prosecution witnesses testified from March 12 to 14, 2019. From July 1 to 18, the court heard testimony from five additional prosecution witnesses. The seventh and eighth prosecution witnesses appeared from September 30 to October 3. From October 7 to 10, two more prosecution testified, and afterwards the trial was postponed indefinitely due to a disagreement between the defense and the prosecution over the use of closed sessions.
In December 2019, the trial resumed before the ICD sitting at the High Court in Kampala, however, proceedings could not take place due to the absence of Kwoyelo, the court assessors, interpreters, and witnesses. Kwoyelo’s absence was due to the non-issuance of a production warrant to the Uganda prison authorities, while the absence of the court assessors, interpreters, and witnesses was due lack of funds to travel to Kampala. For this reason, judges adjourned the trial to January 2020.
Below is a summary of the proceedings that took place January 13 to 15.
Monday, January 13: Tenth Prosecution Witness Concludes Testimony in Closed Session
On January 13, the trial resumed before the ICD sitting at the High Court in Gulu. The 10th prosecution witness, PW10, continued testifying in a closed session. PW10’s testimony was carried forward from 2019 when the judges postponed proceedings due to a disagreement between the defense and the prosecution over the use of closed sessions. The testimony was not open to the public, and afterwards, proceedings were adjourned to January 14, with the prosecution expected to call their next witness.
Tuesday, January 14: Eleventh Prosecution Witness Testifies
On January 14, the prosecution called their 11th witness, PW11, who also testified in closed session. Proceedings started in the morning with preliminary introductions done by Komakech Henry Kilama, the victims’ counsel. Kilama also introduced two community members from Lamogi sub-county whom he said had come to follow proceedings. They were the local council one (LC1) chairperson and a community member. After the introductions, the prosecution requested that the judges initiate protective measures by allowing PW11 to testify in a closed court session. The defense opposed the prosecution’s request, arguing that the trial should be held in public and the witness protected using technology. Justice Gaswaga ruled in favor of the prosecution, and the audience was asked to vacate the courtroom.
Wednesday, January 15: Two More Prosecution Witnesses Testify; Trial Adjourned to March
On January 15, the ICD held a third day of proceedings. The hearing began in the morning with prosecution lawyer Charles Kaamuli informing the court that the prosecution team had lined up two witnesses to deliver their testimonies during the day — witnesses PW12 and PW13. Kamuli went on to verbally apply for protection measure for these witnesses by requesting the court to conduct its proceedings in closed session. He cited two reasons: that the witnesses came from a village neighboring that of Kwoyelo and that one of the witnesses has a linkage with the accused through a clan intermarriage.
The defense objected to this request. Defense lawyer Caleb Alaka submitted that in the interest of justice, the trial should be opened to the public to enable the wider community to follow proceedings. Defense lawyer Dalton Opwonya also submitted that it did not make sense to hold proceedings in Gulu if the public would not be allowed to access the courtroom.
After these objections, Kwoyelo’s lawyers engaged in a consultation with their client. Justice Gaswaga then asked to know the outcome of these consultations, and in response, Alaka informed the judge that the accused was not happy with the use of closed sessions. Alaka also noted that Kwoyelo was concerned with the absence of his close relatives from the courtroom.
Justice Gaswaga responded that the concern was not new and that it would be looked into. The judge went on to grant the prosecution’s application for the use of closed sessions and asked the public to vacate the courtroom. Proceedings were then held in closed session until both witnesses concluded their testimonies.
After that, the public were informed that the trial had been adjourned until March 6, 2020 because the prosecution had completed presentation of evidence around “incidence C” and thus needed time to prepare for the next area of focus. At the beginning of the trial, the prosecution announced that they had grouped the charges and the presentation of evidence into eight categories of incidences, with each category focusing on a particular location and crime(s). Incidence C focused on the LRA’s attack on Abera village in Lamogi sub-county.
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.