COVID-19 Pandemic Raises Concerns of Delay in Delivering Ongwen Trial Judgment from Ugandan Civil Society

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt global activities, civil society organizations (CSOs) and legal practitioners in northern Uganda believe it should not be a cause for delay in delivering the final ruling of Dominic Ongwen’s case. The case is currently before the International Criminal Court (ICC) awaiting judgment.

Ongwen is on trial for crimes he is alleged to have committed as a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The crimes prosecutors charged Ongwen with fall into three categories: attacks on internally displaced persons (IDP) camps; sexual and gender-based crimes; and conscription of child soldiers. Ongwen is alleged to have had a role in attacks on the Pajule IDP camp (October 10, 2003); the Odek IDP camp (April 29, 2004); Lukodi (May 19, 2004); and Abok (June 8, 2004). The defense, the prosecution, and the victims’ legal representatives concluded presentation of evidence in his case in March 2020.

Fears of a Delay

While many community members in northern Uganda are optimistic about the trial’s conclusion, the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have prompted concerns from many civil society representatives that the pandemic could result in a delay of the final verdict.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly diverted attention away from a lot of things and this includes the Ongwen trial,” noted Francis Opio, a civil society representative. “Here in Uganda the attention was focused on how to curb the virus, and this diverted people’s attention. Several CSOs were, for example, conducting outreach and informing the public about the trial. However, with the pandemic, all this had to come to a standstill because of the measures put in place by the government. Hence people have been deprived of information…The ruling is also hanging in balance, and we cannot rule out the possibility of a delay.”

“The ruling may delay because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” remarked a former LRA abductee. “I understand that the judgment is supposed to be delivered ten months after the conclusion of evidence. However, the pandemic has diverted people’s attention and all are focused on survival. There is no outreach taking place.”

“There is fear that the COVID-19 pandemic will affect the timely conclusion of Ongwen’s trial,” said Steven Balmoi, a media practitioner in Gulu. “This is because everyone is focusing on how to survive and how to meet the most basic needs. Justice is not a basic need. During a period of crisis priorities change. So, few people are thinking of what is happening at the ICC. The Netherlands government has their own problems, and the ICC is also focusing on how to overcome the crisis. In courts all over the world, trials have been adjourned and hearings have been rescheduled. So, the ruling could be delayed.”

“This is a pandemic, so it has not only affected Uganda or [the] Netherlands. We have all been critically following Ongwen’s case, and we all know where it has reached. However, with the pandemic still in force, people are waiting to see what will happen after. The lockdown is being eased in many countries, so hopefully soon we shall have the court reopening and a date for the ruling will be set,” said Fred Ngomokwee, another civil society representative.

Expressions of Optimism

Thomas Lapyem and Komakech Kilama, both legal practitioners in Gulu, shared the opinion that there should be no reason for a delay given that the presentation of evidence was already completed, and it is only the ruling pending.

“It is true that the pandemic has diverted people’s attention, and they are focusing on staying safe during this period,” noted Thomas. “In addition, livelihoods are also at stake, and it has affected people who cannot provide for themselves. However, given that the presentation of evidence was completed, there is need to ensure that the verdict is still delivered on time, which is crucial for ensuring swift justice for the victims. The efficiency of the ICC system should ensure no delay. The evidence has been presented and the judges are only just deliberating.”

“I am not sure what the judges are doing during this period and whether they are working, but since the presentation of evidence was finished then am sure they are using the time well to evaluate the evidence. I personally think it will not affect the judgement or delay the verdict. This period is a good opportunity for them to write their judgement since there is little taking place at court,” noted Komakech.

 “The COVID-19 pandemic could delay the final ruling, but I think that is highly unlikely,” noted Chris Ongom, another civil society representative. “This is because the lockdown is being opened worldwide, and in addition the presentation of evidence was already concluded. So, the judges can use this period to prepare their ruling and it can be delivered in a closed session without need for an audience. I am sure the ICC has all the systems and technology required to ensure a ruling is delivered without delay.”

The judgement in Ongwen’s trial is expected to be delivered in early 2021.

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.