Former Ugandan child soldier and former commander of the Christian extremist organization Lord’s Resistance Army, Dominic Ongwen , has been found guilty of 61 war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 2002 and 2005 in camps for displaced persons in Uganda.
The ruling, released on Thursday by the International Criminal Court (ICC) after five years of trial, considers it proven that he captured children to fight, looted, tortured and murdered civilians, including babies. It also turned the girls into sexual slaves and forced them into marriage and subsequent pregnancy, charges the latter qualified for the first time by the Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The amount of the sentence will be announced in a few weeks, as indicated by the Court. Ongwen was kidnapped as a child by militiamen belonging to Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) , which aims to impose a theocratic regime in the country, and became a lieutenant.
The judges have not considered the biography of the convicted person as a defense, a debate that has flown over the case. On the contrary, they emphasize that he is responsible for crimes committed when he is of legal age and in full use of his mental faculties.
According to the ruling, Ongwen was appreciated by his subordinates and his bosses praised his work. “He was not a [Joseph Kony] wimp, but he took the initiative and even discussed the orders received. He had the possibility of leaving the LRA, as did other of his comrades. Instead, he was promoted in the military and also committed private crimes.
There is no defense and he is responsible for his actions ”, said Bertram Schmitt, president of the chamber. The sentence emphasizes the reports of the psychologists who have examined him, and that they did not observe any disorder, as well as the statements of witnesses, in particular the women who were enslaved.
After the serial abduction of civilians in different open camps for displaced people in Uganda, Ongwen “forced several women to become his wives and servants and told the rest that the minors would be trained as child soldiers.” The girls were given as sex slaves to the militiamen, and if they did not fulfill their duties they were beaten; sometimes to death, explains the failure.
Due to this, the Court has added the crime of marriage and pregnancy by force as war crimes and crimes against humanity: “Marriage is a state that is acquired voluntarily and that has social, religious and personal effects that affect the the privacy of the person. If the victim is tied in an illegitimate way, this leads to social stigma and loss of dignity ”.
The terror of the girls forced to have sex with their captors has echoed in the room. Those who refused or made mistakes in serving their owners could be beaten to death or forced to beat others to death. In her testimony, one of those victims said: “I didn’t want to lie with an older man and like this.
I was afraid to refuse to be his wife by force, but in the face of certain death, what would you choose? Ongwen had several children with seven of them under these conditions.
It is also the first time that the Court has tried a case related to crimes perpetrated by the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, and Ongwen has been sentenced in his capacity as commander of the Sinia brigade, one of the four that made up the militia.
He perpetrated or ordered the crimes, and the account of the attacks on camps of civilians displaced from their homes as a result of the clashes between the Army and the rebels of Joseph Kony, in a way summed up his own past.
As a child Ongwen saw the horrors that he later ordered: kidnapping of children and the shooting and machete deaths of the elderly; the terror of the forced marches to the LRA camps in which babies were torn from their mothers’ arms and left in the forest because they bothered with their crying; the weak beaten to death; looting and destruction.
All this has been heard in the courtroom, while Ongwen listened with his mask on, due to the security measures imposed by the pandemic. The sentence has not only described atrocious events, but the names of the victims have been read aloud because, according to Judge Schmitt, “they have the right not to have their suffering forgotten.”
Ongwen’s family has related that he was kidnapped in 1990 at the age of 10 by the Kony rebels when he was going to school, according to Human Rights Watch. Child soldiers’ training methods include instilling terror into them and forcing them to kill adults, and other minors in the same situation who have disobeyed and tried to flee.
The ICC considers the forced recruitment of minors a war crime and he has been the only former child soldier tried to date by its judges. As in the rest of its cases, the Court has allowed the participation of the victims to express their opinion apart from the witnesses.
It is a unique characteristic in international justice, and this time the intervention of 4,000 people has been collected and recognized, who, given the inability to travel to the Court, have been represented through seven testimonies.
As Ongwen himself explained during the trial, he deserted the LRA in 2015 when he was in the Central African Republic, and was guarded at the US military base in Obbo, in the southeast of the country, until the authorities handed him over to the Court.
Since 2005, an international arrest warrant has been weighing on him, and the Government of Uganda, which is a member of the Court, has asked its prosecution to take up the case. In the same situation were three other LRA commanders, who are presumed dead, and Joseph Kony himself, who has fled. The Court lacks a police force and relies on the international community to arrest suspects, not always adequate cooperation.
The LRA is one of the most violent rebel militias in Africa, and Joseph Kony is a kind of spiritual leader who aims to overthrow President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986. Once in office, his plans are to rule the country of according to the 10 commandments.
Between 2010 and 2017, the United States carried out an operation aimed at eradicating the group or arresting its members, which ended due to its cost and because the LRA lost steam. According to Human Rights Watch, Kony is located in Kafia Kingi, an area on the border between Sudan and South Sudan.