Four Witnesses Testify in Thomas Kwoyelo Trial; Widow Gives Testimony About Husband’s Death

The trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), resumed on March 9, before the International Crimes Division (ICD) sitting at the High Court of Uganda in Gulu. From March 9 to 13, the court listened to testimony from four prosecution witnesses who testified about killings allegedly conducted in 1996 at the command of Kwoyelo. This phase of the trial is expected to last three weeks. The trial was presided over by a panel of four judges: Dancan Gaswagga, Jane Persis Kiggundu, Michael Elubu, 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 and for this reason, judges adjourned the trial to January 2020. From January 13 to 15, the trial resumed in Gulu and four prosecution witnesses testified.

This article presents a summary of proceedings that took place from March 9 to 13.

Monday, March 9: Proceedings Adjourned with No Explanations              

The court conducted no proceedings on March 9, with an adjournment being made to the following day. Court officials provided no explanations. On a positive note, information circulated that proceedings would be open to the public on this occasion, and court technicians could be seen setting up a sound system to allow witnesses to testify with protective measures.

Tuesday, March 10:  Absence of Court Assessor Prompts Another Adjournment

On March 10, the court postponed proceedings again because only one court assessor was present. It was not until noon that a court official revealed the absence of the court assessor. The official informed members of the public that proceedings would resume the following day.

Court assessors are non-judicial members of the public who help the judges to reach a verdict based on their independent opinions. However, the opinion of court assessors are not binding.  For the Kwoyelo trial, four court assessors were appointed in March 2019 in accordance with Rule 30 of the ICD Rules of Procedure and Evidence.

Wednesday, March 11: Fourteenth Prosecution Witness Testifies about a Killing Allegedly Conducted by Kwoyelo in 1996

On March 11, the prosecution called their fourteenth witness, PW 14, also referred to by the pseudonym G1. Proceedings commenced in the afternoon. Absent from the courtroom were the victims’ lawyers, one of whom had travelled out of the country, and the other was absent due to illness. In a letter to the court, the victims’ lawyers explained that they would be available on March 16, and their temporary absence would not affect proceedings or the participation of victims.

The prosecution revealed that they would commence with the presentation of evidence on “Incidence G.” 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). It also emerged that for Incidence G, the prosecution intended to call five witnesses, three of whom would testify without protective measures.

Witness PW14 was then taken through his testimony by prosecution lawyer Lillian Omara Alum. Witness PW14 testified about the killing of three people in February 1996 allegedly ordered by Kwoyelo. According to PW14, as he and other people were returning from attending a funeral, they were ambushed by rebels who ordered them to stop and sit down. However, he was able to run away and escape, leaving the others behind. PW14 said he was able to identify Thomas Kwoyelo who was known as Okot Thomas at the time because they attended the same primary school—Pabbo Primary School.

PW14 said he fled to Pabbo trading center where spent the night with a friend. Upon visiting the scene of the ambush the following day, they found three dead people lying on the ground, with their hands tied. The dead people had stab wounds all over their bodies, one of them had a portion of the intestines exposed. He said they picked the bodies and buried them. PW14 also revealed that he was previously abducted three times and that Kwoyelo was one of the commanders known to have operated around their village. After his testimony, the court adjourned proceedings to the following day for the defense cross-examination.

Acholi translation proved a challenge as both the defense and prosecution raised complaints in this regard, leading to the introduction of another translator by the court registrar. In addition, the defense raised a number of complaints to the questions posed by the prosecution lawyer, which led the judge to rephrase a number of them.

Thursday, March 12: Defense Cross-Examines Witness PW14; Fifteenth Prosecution Witness Testifies About Her Husband’s Death

On March 12, the defense cross-examined witness PW14. Answering questions from defense lawyer Caleb Alaka, PW14 testified about the presence of government militia referred to as Local Defense Units (LDU), who were recruited by the government to provide security in villages of northern Uganda during the war with the LRA. Alaka’s questions aimed at establishing whether PW14 could distinguish the LDUs from government soldiers and LRA rebels. PW14 also admitted that he could not confirm how the three dead people ambushed by the LRA died because he did not witness the killing. PW14 was also cross-examined by Odongkara Franklyn, a court assessor, who asked him if he remembered the number of people who were ambushed by the LRA. PW14 responded in the negative.

The prosecution then called their fifteenth witness, PW15, who testified with protective measures through a video link, with only the audio voice being heard in the courtroom. PW15 was granted protective measures as a result of being from the same village as Kwoyelo and at risk of threats by the accused’s immediate family.

On direct examination by prosecution lawyer Florence Akello, witness PW15 revealed that she was part of the group that the LRA rebels ambushed as they returned from a funeral, which is the same incident witness PW14 described. She managed to run away and escape together with her husband and others, while some other people were captured. After reaching the nearby Pabbo trading center, her husband suggested that they use an alternative route to get home. However, along that route, another group of rebels ambushed them. The rebels captured them and ordered them to sit down. PW15 observed that some of the rebel soldiers were wearing army fatigues while others were plain clothes.

“My husband and two other men were ordered to remove their shirts, and their hands were tied behind their backs,” narrated PW15. “When the soldiers finished tying them up, they were ordered to get up and start walking. We walked until we reached the main road that leads to Juba at a place called Pajidi, and we were stopped. The three men were ordered to lie down facing the ground.”

PW15 continued narrating that some soldiers were then ordered to stab the men to death using bayonets. She witnessed her husband being stabbed to death in three different spots: his back and his two sides. Her husband’s intestines got exposed, she said. PW 15 testified that as the rebels stabbed her husband, he called her name and asked her to take care of the children. After killing the men, the rebels asked the survivors if what they had done was good. For fear of their own lives, they responded affirmatively. The witness said after that, the rebel released them. She said they hid on the bush until the following day when they returned to the scene and found the corpse of her husband and the other two still lying where they were killed.

The defense did not examine witness PW15, and proceedings were adjourned to the following day.

Friday, March 13: Two prosecution Witness Testify; Judges Caution Prosecution to Focus on Quality, Not Quantity of Witnesses

On March 13, the prosecution called two more witnesses, PW16 and PW17.

PW16 started testifying about the incident involving the killing of the three people in February 1996 by LRA rebels allegedly commanded by Kwoyelo, leading to the death of his uncle. PW16’s testimony was cut short due to the judges’ concern that the evidence adduced was repetitive because it was the same information mentioned by the two preceding witnesses. The defense did not examine witness PW16.

The prosecution then proceeded to call their seventeenth witness, PW17, but the defense objected, noting that his testimony would also be repetitive because he was testifying about the same February 1996 incident. This prompted the prosecution to consider cancelling the testimony of PW17. The judges allowed witness PW17’s testimony to proceed on the condition that the prosecution examined him from a different angle.

PW17, a local leader at the time of the conflict, testified about how he received reports of the three people killed by the LRA as narrated by PW14 and PW15. He said that on receiving news of the deaths, he informed the local authorities, helped to retrieve the bodies, and then proceeded with the burial. PW17 also testified about life in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, noting that shortly after this incident all civilians were ordered to move to Pabbo IDP camp where they stayed until 2008. PW 17 noted that due to life in IDP camps, people were infected with various diseases, education was interrupted, movements were restricted, farming was made impossible, and women suffered sexual and gender-based crimes including rape. PW17 was briefly cross-examined by the defense and a court assessor.

After his testimony, proceedings were adjourned to Monday, March 16, when the prosecution is expected to call their next witnesses.

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. This trial monitoring report was compiled in partnership with Avocats Sans Frontiere (ASF) who observed trial proceedings in Kampala.