Hundreds of LRA victims of Abok, Oyam district watching live streaming of Dominic Ongwen’s court appearance on December 6, 2016.
“I did understand the document (of charges translated in Acholi), but not the charges because I understand the charges are against the LRA and the LRA is Joseph Kony who is the leader…It is the LRA that committed crimes. International Criminal Court, do you agree that I am the leader of LRA, do you agree that my life was not ruined?” Dominic Ongwen
OYAM-UGANDA: As thousands of victims of Uganda’s most notorious rebel outfit, The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) detained commander, Dominic Ongwen, watched with keen interest, his first appearance before a panel of three judges of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Tuesday December 6, 2016, desperate victims are crying for reparation now as he pleads “not guilty” to all the 70 charges brought against him.
In one of its stories on Wednesday, the Daily Monitor quotes Dominic Ongwen as having told the court that, he is neither the LRA as an institution, nor its commander in chief but a victim of LRA himself.
“I did understand the document (of charges translated in Acholi), but not the charges because I understand the charges are against the LRA and the LRA is Joseph Kony who is the leader…It is the LRA that committed crimes. International Criminal Court, do you agree that I am the leader of LRA, do you agree that my life was not ruined?” Ongwen is reported to have told Court.
As Ongwen continued to shift liability of crimes labeled against him to his former boss, Joseph Kony in the over two-decade insurgency in northern Uganda, the presiding judge, Mr. Bertram Schmitt shut him down, saying he has no right to ask the court questions but to respond to the questions of whether he pleads guilty or not.
“You are here before the court and you are not in the position to ask the court questions. You will receive a fair trial. I would ask you to answer the questions I have repeated; do you make admission in respect to the charges?” Judge Schmitt is quoted to have asked Ongwen.
As these were unfolding inside the court at The Hague, Netherlands, the Registrar of the ICC, Mr. Herman von Hebel, was visiting victims of LRA atrocities in northern Uganda to get first hand information on how victims were taking the trial.
“It is a very important day for me to see so many people gathered here (Abok sub-county headquarters in Oyam district, the scene of June 8, 2004 atrocity where the LRA massacred over 25 people) interested in the case of Ongwen. In my 15-years experience, it is my first time to witness so many people follow up a case. Truths must be told”. Mr. von Hebel told the over one thousand victims who had gathered to follow the court proceedings being streamed live on giant screens.
Mr. von Hebel described the two-day trial as “historic” since it will solve the issue of accountability on the part of Ongwen; it will provide opportunity for the voices of witnesses who saw the consequences of so many years of war to be heard and also to secure reparations for victims in case of guilty verdict.
He said his office has put in place mechanisms to give maximum security protection to all witnesses from both prosecution and defense counsels, who are due to give evidence in court at The Hague.
“Witnesses play an important role in the trial and we have taken decision to provide them with protection (security) including relocation to a third country if need be as extreme and last resort. It is not in our interest to remove a witness from his environment,” said Mr. von Hebel.
According to Mr. Cyprian Ayoo, the former Internationally Displaced Peoples’ (IDP) camp leader of Abok, Oyam district, poverty is very rampant in northern Uganda with economic recovery of victims of the LRA insurgency “very slow” because reparation has not yet been effected by both government or the international community.
“Reparation may delay since it will only come upon conviction. You cannot say we are going to recover. Economic recovery is very slow. Can something be done before?’’
Who is Dominic Ongwen?
Dominic Ongwen was born 41 years ago in Coorom village, Amuru district in northern Uganda. He was abducted as a minor by the LRA while on his way to Primary school. He raised through the LRA ranks to the level of a “Brigadier” and commanded the Sinia brigade of the LRA. He was indicted by the ICC together with Joseph Kony, Raska Lukwiya, Vincent Otti and Okot Odhiambo in 2005.
He surrendered from Central African Republic in 2015 and was transferred to the ICC Detention Center in January 2015. Confirmation of charges hearing against him (70 cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity) was conducted between 21 and 27 January 2016. If convicted, he will serve a maximum of life-sentence in prison in a gazette prison outside the ICC detention Center.