The victim-perpetrator status of formerly abducted children in northern Uganda has been a subject of intense debate. Similarly, from the time of his capture and handing over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), the same subject dominated debates surrounding the trial of Dominic Ongwen. It is therefore not surprising that when Ongwen’s defense lawyers presented their closing statements on March 12, there was renewed discussions on the subject.
Ongwen is a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander 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 presentation of evidence by the prosecution, the defense, and the legal representatives for victims, the court held closing statements March 10 – 12.
In Gulu town, the Outreach Division of the ICC in Uganda organized a public screening of the closing statements at the Gulu District Council headquarters and members of the public attended throughout the three days.
As expected, the closing statements by Ongwen’s defense lawyers recapped their arguments throughout the trial regarding Ongwen’s innocence and his abduction background. Predictably, these arguments resonated with many community members who attended the public screening in Gulu town.
“For me, I think Ongwen is not guilty because if I started my own rebel movement, abducted children, and put them under my command, it would be equivalent to a head of a family who gives orders to the children. Do you think a child can refuse to go and get fire wood if ordered? Ongwen is not guilty but he is just unlucky,” noted a woman called Oyella.
“The defense made a point. Ongwen was a child who didn’t know anything when he was abducted. In the bush if you were told to do something and you refused, you got killed. My own brother was abducted, and when he was told to go and sleep with an abducted girl, he refused, and he was killed,” said Doreen.
“According to what the defense team were saying, Ongwen is like a child who was captured and brought up from the bush. In Acholi if you are a child, you remain a child forever, and you remain with the mentality you develop when you are young. So I see that the defense are trying to discuss how a child who grew up experiencing bad things remains with that mentality in his mind even when he grows. I think his sentence should consider this,” said Nyero.
Some members of the public remained cautious, noting that Ongwen’s case was complicated given his abduction background.
“It is complicated, and at this stage we cannot predict whether Ongwen will be found guilty or innocent,” said a woman called Auma. “I think the verdict will depend on what the prosecution and defense witnesses said. The crimes committed by Ongwen are hard to prove as noted by the defense lawyers.”
“I heard the defense closing statement. If you compare it with what the prosecution said, I think there is a big task for the judges to reach a fair judgment,” said Odong. “In my opinion, this case needed a longer time. As someone from northern Uganda, I think it will be difficult to reach fair verdict using the current available evidence. Ongwen was abducted, and if you place yourself in his situation where you had to follow orders, then you will agree that it is complicated. I think the [government] rushed and referred the situation to the ICC, but in my opinion this case shouldn’t have gone to the ICC.”
One community member called Opio reflected on the impact the trial would have in convincing abductees to surrender.
“In light of what the defense said, my worry is how the trial will impact the children who are still in LRA captivity,” noted Opio. “Will it help them to change their minds to come home? I am sure the children who are still in the bush will be told that the same thing will happen to them if they surrender like Ongwen did. Anyway, let us leave the matter in the hands of the judges.”
However, some community members were not sympathetic to the defense’s argument and maintained that Ongwen was guilty.
“What the defense lawyers are saying lacks truth. Ongwen’s lawyers are arguing that he is innocent. How can that be? What they are saying is short of truth. Ongwen is our brother, but he did bad things,” argued Okello.
The above arguments demonstrate the complexity of Ongwen’s case, and with the closing arguments now complete, the final verdict lies with the judges.
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