Defense Psychiatrist Disagrees that Reports he Co-wrote on Ongwen’s Mental Health were “Sloppy”

A defense psychiatrist disagreed that two reports he co-wrote on the mental health of Dominic Ongwen were “sloppy,” a characterization a prosecution rebuttal witness made of the reports when he reviewed them.

Emilio Ovuga told the International Criminal Court (ICC) during his rejoinder testimony that he and his colleague, Dickens Akena, did not write their reports as they would have scientific papers for a journal because the reports were not intended for a scientific readership.

Ovuga testified on November 28, 2019 and November 29, 2019 as a rejoinder witness to the testimony of Roland Weierstall-Pust, who was the prosecution’s rebuttal witness. Weierstall-Pust testified on November 25, 2019 and November 26, 2019.

Trial Chamber IX allowed the defense to call a rejoinder witness to respond to the prosecution’s rebuttal witness when the chamber scheduled the testimony of Akena and Ovuga for November 18 to 22, 2019. Akena testified on November 18 and November 19. Ovuga testified on November 21 and November 22.

Ovuga and Akena told the court that they diagnosed Ongwen with post-traumatic stress disorder, a dissociative identity disorder, and depression during the period he has been charged with committing atrocities in northern Uganda. The defense contends that Ongwen had a mental disease or mental defect during the charge period, and he cannot be held responsible for the crimes he is alleged to have committed. This affirmative defense is provided for in Article 31(1)(a) of the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding law.

Prosecutors allege Ongwen is responsible for committing atrocities between July 2002 and December 2005. Ongwen is accused of committing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity while he was a commander with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). He has pleaded not guilty to all the counts.

On November 28, 2019, Ovuga told the court that he was not happy with Weierstall-Pust’s characterization of the two reports he and Akena wrote as “sloppy.” He said people who reviewed papers submitted to professional journals were required not to use degrading terms in their reviews. Ovuga said instead they were required to offer suggestions to improve the papers they reviewed.

“Our report was not written for a scientific conference. It was written for purposes of people understanding the complex clinical picture that we observed [pointing to Ongwen] … We have done scientific papers and we know which audience needs what kind of material,” said Ovuga.

Beth Lyons, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, asked Ovuga to respond to Weierstall-Pust emphasizing in his rebuttal report that he and Akena should have used psychometric tests to assess Ongwen’s mental health and corroborate or dispute what they were observing in their interviews with Ongwen.

Ovuga said he and Akena did not think such tests were necessary in their interviews with Ongwen, “because we were interacting with the source of information, observing him for two hours, for three hours whenever we went to the … detention center.

“We made observations, swings in mood, changes in behavior, and so on. We were being criticized and being asked whether a mood of happiness, being jolly, and so on, was consistent with diagnosis of depression. The rebuttal witness, as a psychologist, should have known that there are a set of what we call psychological defense mechanisms, one of which applies to what we are being told is not consistent with depression. That is being happy, being jolly,” said Ovuga.

He said that child soldiers learned to develop what he called “reaction formation,” which he explained to the court as child soldiers showing emotions or reacting to a situation in a way that was opposite to how they felt.

“So, reaction formation helped the child soldiers to cope with their feelings of grief, loss, and so on, and the rebuttal witness should have known this, and it shouldn’t have been difficult for him to understand,” said Ovuga.

Lyons then asked him to respond to Weierstall-Pust’s assertion in his report that the symptoms of a dissociative identity disorder that Ongwen exhibited were the same as those exhibited by people who were faking having such a disorder. Ovuga accepted that some people could fake having a dissociative identity disorder.

“But as I said, Mr. Ongwen, I don’t think – we keep saying this in his hearing, and I hope he doesn’t end up faking – I don’t think Mr Ongwen has any desire to fake illness. He wants to be well … He doesn’t like seeing his double,” said Ovuga.

“And here we were told we should have had corroboration from other people. You see with dissociative states, the interruption can be described very well by the affected person but also sometimes by those around the person. But we have a fundamental problem here, which we are not willing to accept. The fundamental problem is we have people who are not mentally literate. They cannot appreciate that this behavior is not normal,” said Ovuga.

Then Lyons asked Ovuga to explain what he meant by “people who are mentally illiterate,”

“In our part of the world we somatize. We convert psychological distress into physical symptoms. And we also spiritualize, that is, we explain our psychological distress in terms of the effects of spirits, ancestral spirits. The wrong that we have done and what our ancestors have done … So, we are more likely to have people who are not mentally literate, by mentally literate meaning they do not understand the phenomenology of mental illness, they will explain it in the ways I have done,” said Ovuga.

In saying there was a problem that “we are not willing to accept,” Ovuga could have been referring to a line of questioning the prosecution has pursued when their three mental health experts testified and when Ovuga and Akena testified. Different prosecutors have asked the experts to comment on excerpts of witness testimony in which the witnesses would describe Ongwen as a happy or playful person or a diligent commander, and the prosecutors have asked whether such descriptions were consistent with Ongwen having post-traumatic stress disorder or a dissociative identity disorder or depression.

Lyons continued questioning Ovuga on November 29 about criticisms Weierstall-Pust raised about his and Akena’s diagnosis that Ongwen had dissociative identity disorder. Lyons also questioned Ovuga about Ongwen’s child-like behavior. The prosecution did not question Ovuga as a rejoinder witness. He concluded his testimony on November 29.

On December 6, 2019, Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, gave notice that the defense had closed its presentation of evidence. On December 12, 2019, Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt declared closed the submission of evidence in the trial of Ongwen.

Next in the trial of Ongwen are closing statements, which are scheduled to begin on March 10.

Transcripts of Ovuga’s rejoinder testimony are available here for the November 28 hearing and here for the November 29 hearing.