A former militia leader from Uganda may become the first defendant at the international criminal court to be found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity – despite being both an alleged perpetrator and victim of the same offences.
Dominic Ongwen, 41, faces life in prison if he is convicted on charges of murder, rape, sexual slavery, abduction and torture committed as a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a violent cult which waged a bloody campaign of violence in Uganda and neighbouring countries from the mid-1980s until only a few years ago.
But lawyers for Ongwen, the first former child soldier to be in the dock in The Hague, have argued that as the 41-year-old was abducted by the LRA when only 10, he should not be punished for acts he committed under duress.
The verdict, due on 4 February, is one of the most momentous in the ICC’s 18-year history, but raises difficult questions of responsibility and blame.
“The fact the ICC will soon issue the verdict in its first trial of an LRA leader is important progress toward holding accountable a rebel group that has caused mayhem in Uganda and several nearby countries for years,” said Elise Keppler, the associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.
“It also highlights the challenges to delivering accountability when a child victim grows up to become a leader of such a group.”
In his first appearance in December 2019, Ongwen said he would plead not guilty, telling the court he was “one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities” and should not be on trial.
Prosecutors have said that though victimisation as a child might be a mitigating factor in sentencing, it was not a defence of Ongwen’s alleged decision to “wholeheartedly” embrace violence.
“Ongwen was directly involved in many attacks on civilians … He knew that the crimes he committed were part of widespread and systematic attacks … He played a crucial role in the abduction of children in order to maintain the fighting strength of the LRA,” Fatou Bensouda, who led the prosecution team, told the court.
Led by Joseph Kony, who claimed to be religiously inspired, the LRA waged war across five countries in east and central Africa. The group relied on the abduction of largely defenceless villagers and refugees, including children, to provide labour and combatants. Girls were forced into sexual and domestic slavery while boys were forced to take up arms.
Most of the charges against Ongwen focus on attacks on refugee camps between 2002 and 2005. One of the worst involved a four-day raid by the LRA on camps in north-eastern Congo in December 2009, in which about 350 civilians were killed and another 250, including at least 80 children, were abducted.
Prosecutors have underlined Ongwen’s active leadership during attacks and suggested to the court that Ongwen had opportunities to leave the LRA which he did not take.
Evelyn Amony, who was abducted and raped by Kony, told the court Ongwen was somebody who liked children.
“He would greet me in a jolly manner, and as far as I was concerned, he was somebody who loved people,” she said during witness testimony in 2019.
Joseph Akweyu Manoba, a Ugandan lawyer appointed by the ICC to represent 1,500 of Ongwen’s victims, told the Guardian at the start of the trial that not one of them believed Ongwen was himself a victim. A total of 4,065 victims were granted the right to participate in the proceedings.
Of the five senior LRA leaders indicted by the ICC more than a decade ago, only Ongwen and Kony are still alive. Despite a $5m (£3.5m) reward for information leading to his capture, Kony remains elusive.
The case is important for the embattled ICC, which was founded in 2002 to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes that local criminal systems cannot deal with. The court has a staff of nearly 1,000 and an annual budget of more than $180m but has struggled to secure convictions in a series of high-profile cases.
In June, Chile Eboe-Osuji, the president of the ICC accused the US of acting unlawfully by threatening an economic and legal offensive against the institution following a decision by judges to open an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan. A state department spokesperson said on Tuesday that President Biden would review sanctions imposed on ICC staff by the US.