The trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), resumed on Monday before the International Crimes Division (ICD) sitting at the High Court of Uganda in Gulu. From March 16 – 19, the court heard testimony from two prosecution witnesses, one of whom testified in a closed session. A panel of four judges presides over trial: 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 and concluded their testimonies. From March 9 – 13, at proceedings held in Gulu, judges heard testimony from four witnesses.
This article provides a summary of proceedings held from March 16-19.
Monday, March 16: Eighteenth Prosecution Witness Testifies in Closed Session
On March 16, the prosecution called their eighteenth witness, PW18, who testified in a closed session. The prosecution requested protective measures, which included the use of the pseudonym “D1” and concealing the witness’s identity from the public. As a result, court officials did not allow the public into the courtroom. D1 testified throughout the day, and proceedings were adjourned for cross-examination by the defense the following day. The testimony of D1 marked the beginning of incidence ‘D.’
Tuesday, March 17: Nineteenth Witness Testifies Her Mother’s Death; Acholi Translation Remains a Challenge.
On March 17, PW 18 completed testimony in a closed session. The prosecution called their next witness, PW 19, who went by pseudonym “D13.” Prior to her testimony, the defense, prosecution, victims’ representatives, and the registrar met and agreed to share collective responsibility on ensuring accurate translation, a resolution the judges welcomed. However, this did not improve the quality of translation.
PW 19 testified about the abduction of her sister and brother and the killing of her mother by an LRA outfit allegedly commanded by Kwoyelo. She narrated how the rebels came to their home and captured her brother and sister, Acaba Francis and Akello Paska. Seven days later, the rebels returned claiming Acaba Francis had escaped. When her mother denied knowing where Acaba was, Kwoyelo allegedly ordered for her to be killed, and the witness testified that his mother was axed to death by the rebels.
PW19 and her sister-in-law who were present during the incident were severely beaten but not killed because the former was nursing a baby and the latter was pregnant. PW19 recalled that she was able to identify Kwoyelo, whom they knew as “Tom” from when they used to dance together as boys and girls.
Two days later, the witness learned that Acaba was taking refuge in a village called Oola-Amilobo because the injuries he had sustained from the bush disabled him from walking home. After this incident, PW19 and other family members fled their home for Pabbo trading center. Her sister Akello remained in captivity for three years.
The defense cross-examined PW19 to ascertain how she was able to identify Kwoyelo. PW19 revealed that she first met Kwoyelo around 1984 and that they were approximately the same age and came from the same village. According to her, she was about 15 years old then. She also said, she was able to hear Kwoyelo’s order to kill her mother because he talked in a high tone.
Wednesday, March 18: Cross-Examination of PW19 Continues
On March 18, the defense continued cross-examining PW19. Defense lawyer Evans Ochieng asked questions relating to the witness’s knowledge of LRA commanders Kobi, Onen Kamdul, Vincent Otti, and Otti Lagony. PW 19 told the court that she only knew Kobi because they grew up from neighboring villages and that Kobi was related to Kwoyelo. PW19 was briefly re-examined by the prosecution. The court assessors and judges also asked the witness questions.
One of the judges revisited the issue of PW19’s use of voice recognition to identify Kwoyelo when he allegedly ordered for the killing of her mother. According to the judge, this mode of recognition was questionable. Due its contentious nature, both the prosecution and defense were granted an opportunity to re-examine the witness on this issue.
The prosecution asked questions prompting PW19 to reaffirm that she recognized Kwoyelo’s voice despite many years of separation. The defense asked PW19 whether during their interactions in 1984 she had a conversation with Kwoyelo, and asked the witness to compare his voice in 1984 to his voice at the time of the allegedly incident in 1996. The witness told the court that in 1984, Kwoyelo’s voice was of a young person, but during the attack, the voice had changed into a more violent voice, and it was not the voice of 1984.
After PW19’s testimony, the prosecution requested an adjournment to the following day to enable them to prepare their next witnesses. This led to objections by the defense, but the judges ruled in favor of the prosecution.
Thursday, March 19: Proceedings Adjourned Due to a Presidential Decree to Curb COVID-19
On March 19, judges adjourned proceedings until Tuesday, March 24. This was in response to a presidential decree the previous day ordering the immediate closure of all schools, public places of worship, and other mass gatherings for the next 30 days to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Uganda. The adjournment was made to enable court officials to collect their children from schools.
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.