Trial of Former Child soldier and LRA Commander commences at the ICC

By Stella Ndirangu

6 December 2016, marked the beginning of the trial against former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen. This trial is a first of its kind for several reasons.

First, Dominic Ongwen is the first accused to be apprehended, surrendered and now tried by the ICC in relation the Uganda situation that has been before the ICC since the first indictments for the LRA commanders were issued 11 years ago. The Uganda situation was the first referral and situation before the ICC. The indictments against Dominic Ongwen, Joseph Kony and three other LRA commanders were the first indictments to be issued by the ICC, making themthe first individual’s to be charged by the Court.

Second, Mr. Ongwen known to have been a child of about 10 years when he was abducted and taken to the bush by the LRA, is the first former child soldier to face trial for serious crimes before any international tribunal.

Lastly, the charges Mr. Ongwen faces are a first too, he is charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including attacks against civilians, torture, sexual and gender-based crimes and conscription and use of child soldiers, including enslavement.

The charges and trial against Ongwen have been subject to interesting debate as he is viewed as a victim on one hand and a perpetrator on the other. Some of the crimes he is accused of he has also been a victim of.

As the trial commenced at the seat of the Court, in The Hague, Netherlands, Ugandan’s were afforded the opportunity to follow the proceedings in real-time as viewing sites were set up by both the ICC field office and Civil Society.

When Mr. Ongwen, was asked to plead by the Trial Chamber, he denied the charges, invoking the name of God.

The prosecution case focuses on a series of four attacks on refugee camps in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2005. The narrowed down focus of the case, despite Owngen and LRA committing serious crimes for over 25 years, has been explained to be as a result of the prosecution selecting the best evidence available.

The defence is expected to focus on proving that Ongwen was a child at the time of his abduction and induction to LRA’s activities. To this end they have argued that even after Ongwen reached the age of 18 years, he continued to commit crimes because he was under duress from Joseph Kony the LRA commander. Ongwen’s defence has also expressed the intention to use the child soldier card to mitigate on a conviction in the event this is the outcome of the trial.

This trial will be interesting to follow considering the pioneering jurisprudential outcomes it is expected to attract. Many will wait to see how the Court deals with some of the concerns raised that have never been addressed by any other tribunal.