Former Ugandan child soldier convicted of war crimes
February 8, 2021
A Ugandan who was abducted by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when he was 10 has been found guilty by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005.
Dominic Ongwen was one of over 30,000 boys and girls snatched by the LRA and forced to become soldiers, labourers, and sex slaves.
The ICC does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by anyone under 18, but Ongwen, who was kidnapped in 1990, was tried for crimes he committed as an adult.
However, the judges did not find evidence of duress or mental illness or defect that would negate his culpability for the crimes.
Ongwen is the first LRA leader to be tried before the ICC, and the first to be convicted for LRA crimes anywhere in the world.
Ongwen is the only one of five LRA leaders charged by the ICC who is in custody.
LRA leader Joseph Kony is an outstanding fugitive and the other three are declared to be or presumed dead.
Ongwen’s lawyers have 30 days to appeal.
Reacting to the decision, ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda has said that the conviction of Ongwen, was “an important milestone in the journey to bring justice to the people of Uganda”.
She said: “As a prosecuting office, we have worked tirelessly throughout the proceedings with an unyielding commitment to our mandate, and on the strength of the evidence we have scrupulously collected, to bring a measure of justice to the victims of Ongwen’s crimes. “Today is their day.”
Bensouda went on: “Let me add here that Dominic Ongwen was, at one time, himself a victim of the LRA, abducted as a child and forced to become a child soldier.
“In time…he grew into one of the most senior military leaders, fervently committed to the LRA cause with infamous brutality.”
She added: “As an adult, he was personally responsible for encouraging and committing against others the very crimes that he himself suffered as a child.
“As proven at trial, he was also a direct perpetrator of terrible sexual violence, including against young girls some of whom were forcibly ‘married’ to him.
“We charged him for the horrible crimes he committed as an adult and today he was convicted for those crimes.”
Bensouda said her “first thoughts are with the victims of the heinous crimes we witnessed in this case”.
“The harrowing accounts of the victims were finally recognised through this verdict,” she noted.
“I want to seize this important moment to express my solidarity with the victims and affected communities of Ongwen’s crimes in Uganda, and profound gratitude for the victims and the 116 witnesses who collaborated with my Office in this case.
“I am grateful for their resilience, courage and commitment to the cause of justice.
“They are most deserving of our praise and admiration,’ Bensouda added.
The guilty verdict included convictions for sexual and gender-based crimes and crimes against children, including for the first time, the crime of force marriage and forced pregnancy.
Bensouda said: “This is yet another concrete expression of my Office’s declared policy in action to address these serious underreported crimes.
“It is my sincere hope that this trial and verdict will strengthen the collective resolve of the international community to end impunity for atrocity crimes, including for sexual and gender-based crimes and crimes against and affecting children; crimes so prevalent in conflicts around the globe.”
In welcoming the verdict, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Ongwen’s abduction as a young child and the brutality he may have experienced should be considered as mitigating factors.
“The LRA terrorised the people of Northern Uganda and its neighbouring countries for more than two decades,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at HRW.
“One LRA leader has at last been held to account at the ICC for the terrible abuses victims suffered.
“Would-be rights violators should take note that the law can catch up with them, even years later,” she added.
The abducted boys and girls were forced to beat or trample to death other children who attempted to escape and were repeatedly told they would be killed if they tried to run away. At the height of LRA activity in the early 2000s, as many as 40,000 children, known as the “night commuters”, each night fled their homes in the countryside to sleep in the relative safety of towns to avoid abduction.
HRW said the conviction of Ongwen was a major step for justice for widespread atrocities committed by the LRA.
It said that the guilty verdict “shows that rights abusers can find themselves held to account even if years have passed since their crimes”.
HRW said governments committed to justice for victims of LRA atrocities needed to revisit how to ensure Kony’s ultimate arrest and surrender, urging the UN, African Union, and Economic Community of Central African States to support such efforts.
“Ongwen’s trial and conviction are major developments, but they should not obscure the need for Joseph Kony’s arrest and surrender,” Keppler said.
“Countries should recommit themselves to seeing Joseph Kony face the ICC once and for all.”
The ICC will conduct hearings on sentencing and possible reparations for victims.