Ex-Lord’s Resistance Army figure pleads not guilty to war crimes

ICC case of ex-child soldier Dominic Ongwen to focus on alleged crimes against women

Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier and senior commander in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), smiles at the International Criminal Court  in The Hague, on December 6th, 2016. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AFP/Getty Images

Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier and senior commander in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), smiles at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on December 6th, 2016. Photograph: Peter Dejong/AFP/Getty Images

 

The first former child soldier to appear before the International Criminal Court (ICC) has pleaded not guilty to more than 70 war crimes and crimes against humanity - the longest list of atrocities ever faced by a defendant at the global court.

The case against Dominic Ongwen, a former commander with the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda, is important because it will focus on alleged sex crimes and crimes against women – including forced marriage, which the court has been criticised for neglecting in the past.

The trial of yet another African defendant opens, however, as the ICC faces the biggest crisis in its 14-year history, with several African countries, led by South Africa, withdrawing support on the grounds that it “targets” black leaders – something the court has vehemently denied.

Forced to fight

The judges heard how Ongwen, now in his early 40s, was himself kidnapped by the LRA as a young teenager in 1988 and forced to fight against the forces of President Yoweri Museveni, who had seized power in Uganda two years before and has remained in presidential office ever since.

The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, argued, however, that the fact Ongwen had been a victim of LRA leader Joseph Kony’s campaign of child kidnapping, during which some 66,000 children became soldiers, was, at most, “a mitigating circumstance”.

She said Ongwen was “a murderer and a rapist” who rose to become one of the most senior commanders in the LRA through “unwavering loyalty and ferocity”.

She said he had forced children as young as six to undergo “military training” – in reality a form of sexual enslavement – just as he himself had been after he was abducted.

The court would hear from witnesses, she said, who described those children as being “so small that the muzzles of their AK-47 rifles dragged along the ground”.

The prosecutor played radio intercepts in which a speaker she identified as Ongwen confirmed massacring a group of civilians in one of four attacks on camps for internally displaced civilians which he is accused of personally leading.

‘Subject to repeated rape’

Girls, she said, were “held for years in sexual and domestic slavery and subjected to repeated rape”. Ongwen had “benefited most from their misery”, having sex with them “from a very young age”.

Wearing a dark suit and white shirt, Ongwen – who was arrested by American forces in the Central African Republic in 2014 after a fall-out with Joseph Kony – pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him.

“It was the LRA who abducted and killed people in northern Uganda, and I am one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities,” he said in his native Acholi, speaking through an interpreter.

Joseph Kony was indicted by the ICC along with Ongwen in 2005, but remains on the run, the subject of an Interpol red notice.

Since the Juba peace talks in 2006, the LRA no longer operates in Uganda. It has terrorised large swathes of central Africa instead, and is believed responsible for at least 100,000 deaths.