THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Final closing arguments were heard at the International Criminal Court on Thursday in a yearslong trial of a former child soldier from Uganda charged with war crimes.
It is the first time that a party before The Hague-based ICC, the world’s only court for atrocity crimes, has presented an affirmative defense, meaning he acknowledged participating in some of the crimes.
As a former child soldier, Dominic Ongwen argued he was traumatized and forced to commit atrocities by Joseph Kony, the leader of the cult-like militia group the Lord’s Resistance Army.
“Dominic Ongwen should have been a witness against Joseph Kony. He should not be sitting here answering 70 charges,” Charles Achaleke Taku, a member of Ongwen’s defense team, told the three-judge panel during Thursday’s hearing.
Taku’s presentation and that of his colleague, Krispus Ayena Odongo, meandered at times, with both men frequently stopping to look for notes or discuss time limitations with the ICC judges.
Closing arguments took place over three days, with the prosecution delivering their final remarks on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the legal representatives for victims spent the day summarizing the experiences of their clients. A contingent of journalists from Uganda were initially turned away from the court by a security guard who claimed incorrectly that the hearing was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but they were eventually allowed in.
“Families today are still suffering from the violence of abduction,” said Joseph Akwenyu Manoba, one of several attorneys representing the 4,107 identified victims in the case. “Remember, some abductees were forced to kill members of their own families.”
The Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, is a quasi-Christian armed group without a clear political agenda, but rather a personality cult focused on its leader, Kony, a self-declared prophet. A United Nations estimate found that the LRA was responsible for killing 100,000 people in Africa and forcibly conscripting between 60,000 and 100,000 children into its fighting force.
The group, operating since 1987, also displaced some 2.5 million people across Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The group technically still exists, but its numbers have dwindled from a peak of 3,000 to less than 100.
Both the prosecution and the legal representatives for the victims disagreed that Ongwen’s status as a victim himself should clear him of his guilt.
“The fact that Mr. Ongwen was abducted at a young age does not absolve him for acts committed as an adult. Not all victims become perpetrators and criminals,” Paolina Massidda, another lawyer for the victims, said on Wednesday.
According to his testimony during the trial, Ongwen was kidnapped at the age of 14 by the LRA in 1998 while walking to school.
Upon referral from Uganda, the ICC’s top prosecutor Fatou Bensouda issued arrest warrants for five senior LRA leaders, including Kony. Ongwen is the only one in ICC custody. He was handed over to the court in 2015, after turning himself in to U.S. Army Special Forces, who were in the region looking for Kony. The landlocked central African country has been mired in conflict since its colonial independence in the 1960s.
The defense team focused not only on Ongwen’s mental health – two psychiatrists have testified he suffered from both post-traumatic stress disorder and a dissociative identity disorder – but on the control Kony had over him.
“Never before has the world witnessed a conflict so profoundly complex in nature, steeped in metaphysics and spiritualism as the one that forms the contextual basis as the case before you,” Odongo said Thursday.
Kony took advantage of commonly held spiritual beliefs to convince his followers that he could read their minds and see into the future, the defense argued.
Ongwen’s trial has lasted for nearly four years. At the end of Thursday’s sitting, Presiding Judge Antoine Kesia-Mbe Mindua thanked numerous people and groups involved in the trial over the years before adjourning. Sentencing hearings at the ICC are separate from the closing arguments and those hearings will be held later this year.