Community Members Question the Prosecution’s Evidence as Ongwen Trial Nears End

The public in northern Uganda has expressed mixed reactions to the prosecution’s closing statements in Dominic Ongwen’s trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC). While many were happy that the trial was nearing its end, many also continued to have doubts about the evidence against Ongwen and the justification of his trial.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed between July 2002 and December 2005 in northern Uganda. Ongwen’s trial started on December 6, 2016. After the presentations of evidence by the prosecution, the defense, and the legal representatives for victims, closing statements were scheduled for March 10 – 12, 2020.

Benjamin Gumpert, Adesola Adeboyejo, and Colin Black presented the prosecution’s closing statements before Trial Chamber IX. During their presentation, the prosecution focused on three key areas: the credibility of LRA radio communications intercepted by Ugandan security forces; sexual and gender-based crimes allegedly committed by Ongwen; and attacks on camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) allegedly led by Ongwen.

Reactions to Prosecution Closing Statement

In Gulu district, a public screening of the closing statements was organized by the Outreach Division of the ICC in Uganda. The ICC held the screening at the Gulu District Council headquarters and over 100 members of the public attended.

A man named Okwir, who attended the public screening, reflected on the importance of the trial. “The prosecution’s role is very important because our people should know that it is not possible to wage war and go free. The law should take its course whenever crime is committed.”

 “I have liked the level of participation by the local people in Gulu to watch the closing statements. This shows how much they are interested in the trial outcome,” remarked a community member called Ochola, who also attended the screening. “However, I think it has evoked fresh memories in the victims who were present. I also think translation was a little challenging as the prosecution lawyers were speaking too fast, giving less time for the interpreters,” added Ochola.

“Knowing that the end is nearing makes us happy because it is an indicator that judgment will be delivered soon,” said Onen, a civil servant.

Despite their appreciation of the public screening and the fact that the trial is nearing its conclusion, many continued to question the evidence against Ongwen and why the ICC put him on trial.

“The prosecution has clearly demonstrated Ongwen’s role as an offender.  Despite this, many people in Acholi still do not agree with his trial because the Acholi people died in large numbers. If he is convicted, perhaps he should be jailed here in Uganda,” said Onen.

“The prosecution gave very strong evidence, but at times they agreed with the defense; for instance regarding the element of Ongwen being abducted at an early age.  I also think the issues of forced marriage and Ongwen’s mental illness were over emphasized,” noted another community member named Mugisha.

One former LRA abductee was of the opinion that some of the allegations by the prosecution were not true.

“I have been following the statements carefully. Some are true, and some are not true. For example, the testimony given by a lady who said that Kony and Ongwen were competing for her, and Ongwen vowed not to give her to Kony unless she is divided into two. What I know is that a man had the right to reject any girl given to him. Some of these girls would be kept by these commanders but not as their wives,” she said.

This was in reference to a section of the prosecution’s closing statement presented by trial lawyer Adeboyejo who addressed the sexual and gender-based crimes allegedly committed by Ongwen.

Another community member called Onenchan also held the opinion that some issues raised by the prosecution were inaccurate.

“The prosecution’s closing statement went well, but some things were conflicting. This makes me suspect that they did not conduct the investigations properly. I know in the end we shall wait and hear the judges’ verdict. We who witnessed what happened during the conflict are waiting to see how the judges rule, and we shall also make our own judgments,” he said.

 “I have been watching the prosecution’s closing statements, however, there are certain aspects which leave a lot of questions in my mind,” said Rosalba, an elderly lady. “Some of these include the evidence about the attacks and the radio communication between Ongwen and Kony. I think it was a recorded radio conversation intercepted by the UPDF. It leaves me with a lot of doubts because that can be something that two people can plan.”

Rosalba was speaking in reference to part of Gumpert’s presentation and focused on the quantity, reliability, and credibility of intercepted LRA radio communications. Rosalba also questioned the prosecution’s evidence on sexual and gender-based crimes.

“Another thing is the aspect of the women or the so called ‘wives.’ It could have happened but we know very well that in our context here when you are talking of rape or defilement the court will always insist on having evidence. So it leaves a lot to be desired… I don’t know what to believe and what not to believe. The prosecution’s evidence has left me with a lot of doubt, and we just keep on wishing for the best.”

Regardless of their mixed feelings on evidence presented by the prosecution, the majority of the participants who attended the public screening agreed on the significance of the closing statements as key step towards the conclusion of the trial.

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