A former boy soldier and Ugandan rebel commander has been convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including the landmark gender-based crimes of sexual slavery, forced marriage, and forced pregnancy.
Dominic Ongwen (43), who was in court for the verdict, was also convicted of conscripting children into the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which waged a campaign of extreme brutality across northern Uganda from the mid-1980s, and by whom he himself was abducted in 1987 at the age of nine.
The first former child soldier to appear in the ICC dock, it was Ongwen’s personal history as both perpetrator and victim of some of the same offences which led him to plead not guilty to all 70 charges against him on the grounds that they had, in effect, been committed under duress.
However, before delivering the verdict on each of those 70 charges, that defence was flatly rejected by presiding judge Bertram Schmitt, who said Ongwen had been examined by a number of medical experts and all agreed that his behaviour “did not identify any mental disease or disorder”.
“The defendant did not commit the crimes under duress,” said Judge Schmitt. “He was not, as some contend, a puppet on a string.
“He was not completely subordinate to the leader of the group, Joseph Kony. He had opportunities to leave but instead rose through the ranks. Many of the crimes were committed in private. In the court’s view his guilt has been established beyond reasonable doubt.”
On the run
Kony – who regarded himself as a prophet, was nicknamed “Africa’s David Koresh”, and had no discernible political agenda – remains on the run, but Ongwen gave himself up in the neighbouring Central African Republic in 2015.
As many as 100,000 people are believed to have been killed and some 60,000 children abducted as the LRA “rebels” rampaged across northern Uganda and much of central Africa, burning villages and killing anyone they perceived as supporting government authority.
In the case of four named camps for internally displaced persons, said the judge, mothers and their children were thrown into burning houses or children were placed in polythene bags and beaten to death or thrown into the bush, so that the women could carry loot for the fighters.
In some of those attacks, Ongwen personally took sex slaves, raped them, and in some cases forced them to kill other captives. They were subjected to “barely imaginable physical and mental pain”. He was convicted of forced pregnancy in the cases of seven named women.
Ongwen, wearing a grey suit and tie and wearing a coronavirus mark, sat impassively, sometimes with his eyes closed, listening to the judgment, which took less than two hours.
He faces life imprisonment, with sentencing expected later this year.
ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, whose tenure ends in June, was in court for the judgment, which was an important win for the court.
It was welcomed by Human Rights Watch, which urged new efforts to arrest Joseph Kony.