Community Members and Civil Society Welcome Judgment Date for Ongwen Case

On November 12, 2020, the Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that the judgment on conviction or acquittal pursuant to article 74 of the Rome Statute in the case The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen will be delivered on January 12, 2021 at 10:00am (The Hague local time). Community members and civil society representatives in Uganda have reacted positively to the news, although many also pointed out that prevailing COVID-19 restrictions could limit public participation in activities to receive the ruling. Another concern raised was the need to psychologically prepare community members for the verdict in the event that it did not meet their expectations. Given that Uganda is in an election period, with the ICC’s ruling set to be delivered only 2 days prior to ballot day, there were also fears that political activities could overshadow the ruling.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he allegedly committed as a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. The charges fall into three categories: attacks on internally displaced persons (IDP) camps; sexual and gender-based crimes; and conscription of child soldiers. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Ongwen’s trial opened on December 6, 2016. Over the course of 231 hearings, the Chamber heard 69 witnesses and experts called by the Office of the ICC Prosecutor, 54 witnesses and experts called by the Defense team and 7 witnesses and experts called by the Legal Representatives for Victims. A total of 4,065 victims have been allowed to participate in the trial. The defense, the prosecution, and the victims’ legal representatives concluded presentation of evidence in March 2020. The closing statements by the prosecution, defense, and legal representatives for victims took place on March 10-12, 2020. The trial is being presided over by Judge Bertram Schmitt (Presiding Judge), Judge Péter Kovács and Judge Raul Cano Pangalangan.

Community members and civil society representatives in Uganda have welcomed the announcement of a ruling in January 2021.

Chris Ongom, a civil society representative said, “A timely ruling is good news, however the fundamental question is whether there will be justice and whether the ruling will meet the expectations of the people. This will be the determinant factor. It will determine whether victims will continue having faith in the international justice system. If the ruling is contrary to their expectations then people will develop mistrust in the system. Another fundamental question is whether there will be reparations.”

“This is welcome news for the victims in northern Uganda,” noted Balmoi Steven, a journalist in northern Uganda. “They have been waiting for so long for this ruling, especially the victims of Ongwen. Justice delayed is justice denied. A trial is important but a timely ruling is equally important. The conclusion of this trial may bring healing for the victims because for many of them, watching the trial was like reliving the trauma. A final judgment will therefore help them to put their experiences behind them.”

Vincent, a community member from Lukodi, welcomed the news, but emphasized the need to prepare victims to receive the verdict.

“We have heard of the upcoming judgment, and we welcome it,” he said. “Many people had been asking when the ruling would be, so this announcement helps to clear the air. However victims need to be prepared. The ruling could turn out contrary to their expectations and this could lead to widespread shock. So some preparatory meetings need to take place to allow people to accept the verdict.”

“Community members are happy that we finally have a ruling,” said Odong from Pajule. “However they are divided over whether Ongwen will win or not. Some people want him acquitted while others want him convicted. Others are also skeptical that the upcoming national presidential and parliamentary elections may overshadow the ruling.”

Innocent, a community member from Abok, also noted, “Community members in Abok are happy because judgment will finally happen and the truth will come out. However public attention at the moment is diverted by politics as the country is going through an election period.”

“We welcome the news, because it means Ongwen’s fate will finally be decided,” said a former LRA abductee. “I only hope that victims will not be disappointed by the ruling if it turns out not to be in their favor. However if the ruling meets people’s expectations then it will be fine. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the ICC from doing outreach so people may not be prepared for a ruling. There is a need to prepare them.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic still affecting many aspects of life, it is not known whether victims’ and community representatives from Uganda will be physically present in The Hague during the ruling. Other community members and CSO representatives noted, however, that field outreach and live coverage of the trial could help to relay the proceedings to the public.

According to Maria Kamara from the ICC field outreach in Uganda, plans are being made to broadcast proceedings to ensure public participation, while ensuring that COVID-19 restrictions are observed.

“With the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and since the announcement of various health restrictions and lockdowns, the outreach programs have been redefined with tools and approaches to ensure business continuity during these difficult times. Considering that the threat of the pandemic has got far worse, we shall adhere to the directives issued by the national authorities and continue with engagements in a way that will not expose our teams and participants to risk. We intend to have interactive live radio programs to explain the decision and its outcome(s), broadcast spot messages to further explain and disseminate the verdict, utilize our SMS platform to inform victims and the general public about the verdict, conduct Live a TV broadcast of the verdict on two national TV stations, and publish a question and answer paper in key national newspapers to explain the outcome of the verdict. The delivery of the verdict will be broadcast live on local vernacular radio stations that are listened to by victims, the victims communities, and in the hometown of the accused person..”

Despite the above initiatives, many community members and civil society representatives still emphasized the importance of the physical presence of representatives from among the victim communities in the courtroom during the ruling.

“I would have loved it if some representatives of the victim communities could have travelled to The Hague to be present in the courtroom as the judgment is delivered. That would have been meaningful participation. I imagine victims being present in that courtroom and listening attentively to the judges and not through the radio or a second and third party. I know the ICC Uganda office will do something to screen the session to the people here but this cannot be compared to physical participation,” said Stephen Balmoi.

According to Chris Ongom, “A ruling made in The Hague definitely creates distance, however if the ICC field outreach office provides coverage of the trial then there should not be a problem. During the opening of Ongwen’s trial, we were able to watch the proceedings live. So the ICC’s outreach department has work to do. What is important is the judgment.”

“We understand that the COVID-19 pandemic could prevent travel to The Hague. However if electronic coverage of the trial is provided then it will enable us to follow the proceedings. The ICC has been able to conduct outreach and keep us informed about the trial so the same technology can be used. We shall follow on radio or TV,” said Vincent.

Odong from Pajule also expressed a desire to have representatives from the community present in The Hague.

“In the beginning people wanted Ongwen’s trial to be conducted in Uganda, however the ICC explained and we understood that it would not be possible. So people have been able to follow through outreach sessions. Our expectation is that on the day of the ruling we can have live coverage on TV just as was the case during the opening of the trial. Even then, we would have loved for a community member from Pajule to go The Hague and witness the ruling on our behalf,” said Odong.

“A ruling from The Hague favors Ongwen because he is already there,” said the former LRA abductee. “However for victims and community members who want to follow proceedings, the distance is too far. It would be good if some victims were allowed to travel to The Hague. Otherwise, the ruling should have been delivered in Uganda to allow people to participate.”

“There is nothing we can do about it. After all, the entire trial has taken place outside Uganda. So a ruling delivered from The Hague will not make a difference. As always, we shall try to follow proceedings through radio or screenings by the ICC outreach,” noted Innocent.

As noted by most respondents above, it is election period in Uganda, so this means the verdict in Ongwen’s case will be delivered two days before Ugandans go to the polls on January 14, 2021. Hopefully, the elections will not divert the public’s attention from the trial.

In addition, with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting global activities, many community members in Uganda had expressed fears of a delay in Ongwen’s judgment. These fears were compounded when in March 2020, Uganda instituted a countrywide lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19. A ruling in January 2021 therefore serves to allay these fears.

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.