Former Child Soldier on Trial at Hague Criminal Court

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – Closing arguments began Tuesday in the trial of an ex-commander of a Christian extremist group in Uganda, the first case of a former child soldier to be brought before the International Criminal Court.

“It cannot be, as the defense seems to suggest, that such people have a lifetime free pass just because crimes were committed against them,” said Ben Gumpert, the lead prosecutor in the case, told the judges of The Hague-based ICC.

Dominic Ongwen appears for his trial at the International Criminal Court on Tuesday. (Photo by ICC-CPI)

The defense of Dominic Ongwen has rested heavily on his status as a victim. According to his testimony during the trial, Ongwen was kidnapped at the age of 14 by the cult-like militia group the Lord’s Resistance Army in 1988 while walking to school.

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.

It is the first case involving Uganda to be tried before the world’s only court for atrocity crimes. The landlocked central African country has been mired in conflict since its colonial independence in the 1960s.

At the start of closing arguments Tuesday, the prosecution had the day to present their version of Ongwen’s culpability in four attacks on refugee camps in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2005.

“We’ve proven our case on the evidence,” Gumpert said as Ongwen watched intently, wearing a charcoal grey suit.

The LRA is a quasi-Christian armed group without a clear political agenda, but rather a personality cult focused on its leader Joseph Kony, a self-declared prophet. A United Nations estimate found that the LRA was responsible for killing 100,000 people 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.

Ongwen was the lowest-ranking of five members of the LRA that the ICC issued arrest warrants for in 2005. Those warrants also included one for the group’s leader.

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 prosecution dismissed this assessment as “shoddy.”

“It’s a tragedy that no one disputes but doesn’t relieve him from accountability,” Gumpert told the ICC’s three-judge panel.

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.

Ongwen was turned over to the ICC after being captured by U.S. Special Forces in the Central African Republic. It is believed he had fallen out of Kony’s good graces and had been taken captive by his former leader, before breaking free and handing himself in, reasoning that he was safer in custody.

Closing arguments will resume Wednesday.

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