Former Child Soldier Convicted of Crimes Against Humanity

Dominic Ongwen is the first International Criminal Court defendant to have admitted to participating in some of the crimes with which he was charged. 

The Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court found Dominic Ongwen guilty on Thursday of 61 crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed in northern Uganda between July 1, 2002, and December 31, 2005. (Image via Courthouse News courtesy of ICC)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The International Criminal Court convicted a Ugandan rebel leader on Thursday of 61 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In addition to charges of murder, torture, and enslavement for his role in attacks on displaced person camps, Dominic Ongwen, an ex-commander and former child soldier with Lord’s Resistance Army, was found guilty this morning by the world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes of sexual slavery and forced pregnancy for forcing seven women to act as his “wives.”

“There exists no ground excluding Dominic Ongwen’s criminal responsibility. His guilt has been established beyond any reasonable doubt,” said the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt. The courtroom and gallery were nearly empty since access to the court was restricted due to Covid-19 measures in the Netherlands. 

Ongwen sat stoically, barely moving while the judge described the 70 counts against him for nearly an hour. “This is an exceptionally extensive and complicated case,” Judge Schmitt said. 

Though Ongwen pleaded not guilty in 2016, it was the first time in the court’s history that a defendant admitted to have participating in some crimes and his defense rested heavily on his status as a victim. According to his testimony during the trial, Ongwen was kidnapped at the age of 9 by the cult-like militia group in 1988 while walking to school. 

The judges of Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Judge Bertram Schmitt, Presiding Judge, Judge Péter Kovács, and Judge Raul C. Pangalangan, visited the Republic of Uganda from June 3–9, 2018. The chamber visited Pajule, Odek, Lukodi and Abok — attack sites charged in the case against Dominic Ongwen. (Image via Courthouse News courtesy of ICC)

He would go on to become a ranking member of that organization and is accused of 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity during his 25-year tenure. Over 4,000 victims have participated in the trial.

“This is an important day for victims,” said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch said in an interview. “The LRA terrorized the people of northern Uganda and its neighboring countries for more than two decades. One LRA leader has at last been held to account at the ICC for the terrible abuses victims suffered.” 

Ongwen’s conviction on 61 counts more than doubles the number of convictions the court has had in its nearly 20-year history. Established by the Rome Statute in 2002, the court prosecutes genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression. It has opened investigations into 13 situations and has indicated 44 people to date. 

During four years of hearings, two psychiatrists testified that Ongwen suffered from both post-traumatic stress disorder and a dissociative identity disorder stemming from his own time as a child soldier. “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, a lawyer for the victims, told the court during closing hearings last year

“There is no evidence that he suffered from any mental diseases or defects,” Judge Schmitt said. Ongwen was only charged with crimes that he committed as an adult. 

Ongwen was the lowest-ranking of five members of the Lord’s Resistance Army for whom the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants in 2005. Joseph Kony, the group’s leader and self-declared prophet, has also been charged, but his whereabouts are unknown. Three other people charged by the court have since died or are presumed to be dead. 

“He was not a puppet on a string,” Judge Schmitt said. Ongwen also claimed that if he would have refused to commit the atrocities, he himself would have been killed. His verdict noted, however, that other commanders of the army had successfully left while Ongwen climbed in its ranks. 

The International Criminal Court on Thursday, before a panel there convicted Dominic Ongwen of 61 war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role as a leader of Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. (Courthouse News photo/Molly Quell)

Ongwen turned himself into U.S. Special Forces who were searching for Kony in the Central African Republic. They handed him over to the ICC. It is believed he was taken captive by his former leader after having fallen out of Kony’s good graces, then broke free and handed himself in, reasoning that he was safer in custody.

Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army came into the world spotlight when a short documentary about the leader’s atrocities, “Kony 2012,” went viral that year. More than 100 million people have viewed the 28-minute film since it was published and brought immense attention to the plight of child soldiers in Uganda.

The quasi-Christian armed group originated in northern Uganda in 1987 to oppose the national government’s abuse of communities in the region. Initially, the group had support from the local population, but as it became increasingly violent, that support waned. The landlocked central African country has been mired in conflict since its colonial independence in the 1960s.

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.

Judge Schmitt noted that the court “might have to evaluate [Ongwen’s status as a child soldier] in a later context.” The court will rule on sentencing later this year. 

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