Victims Want Life Sentence for Ugandan War Atrocities

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 in February 2021 of 61 crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed in Northern Uganda between July 1, 2002, and December 31, 2005. He faces a sentence of up to life in prison. (Image via Courthouse News courtesy of ICC)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — While prosecutors told the International Criminal Court that Dominic Ongwen should be given 20 years in prison for atrocities he committed against Ugandans as a leader in the Lord’s Resistance Army, lawyers representing the victims have asked for the maximum sentence of life. 

“If he were my own child, I would say he should die for his crimes so the people who have suffered can get justice,” lawyer Joseph Manoba said one of the more than 4,000 victims in the case told him. 

Ongwen, who was convicted in February of 61 counts of murder, torture, and enslavement for his role in attacks on displaced person camps in northern Uganda, sat stoically while lawyers for both the prosecution and the victims addressed the court over what sentence he should receive. 

His lawyers argued in their closing statements last year that he should be given leniency because he was kidnaped by the LRA and forced to be a child soldier. “His previous experience as a child soldier does not in any way diminish the gravity of his crimes,” prosecution lawyer Colin Black told the three-judge panel Wednesday. Although the Rome Statute, which created the court in 2002, allows for a maximum sentence of life in prison, the prosecution has requested a minimum of 20 years, partly in deference to Ongwen’s experience as a child soldier. 

“Life imprisonment is the only adequate response to the incurable pain inflicted to the more than 4,065 victims who still face, more than 15 years after the events, unprecedented challenges in recovering from the harm they suffer from as a result of the crimes Mr. Ongwen committed,” another one of the victims’ lawyers, Paolina Massidda, told The Hague-based court. During the three-year-trial, 170 witnesses testified. 

Ongwen was a senior commander in the group led by Joseph Kony, which came into the world spotlight when a short documentary about the leader’s atrocities, “Kony 2012,” went viral. The quasi-Christian armed group originated in northern Uganda in 1987 to oppose the national government’s abuse of communities in the region but became increasingly violent toward civilians. 

During his four-year trial, Ongwen’s defense team presented evidence that he is suffering from both post-traumatic stress disorder and a dissociative identity disorder and argued that Kony exerted serious control over him. The prosecution pushed back.

“It is not enough for the defense to say that because Mr. Ongwen is currently receiving mental health treatment, his mental capacities were substantially diminished at the time of the crimes,” Colleen Gilg, another prosecution lawyer, argued. 

Ongwen was the lowest-ranking of five members, including Kony, of the LRA that the ICC issued arrest warrants for in 2005. His is the first Ugandan case to come to trial. Kony’s whereabouts remain unknown and the three other people charged by the court have since died or are presumed dead. 

He pleaded not guilty in 2016 after turning himself into U.S. Special Forces, which 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 surrendered believing he was safer in custody. 

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.

The sentencing hearing will continue Thursday when Ongwen is expected to make a statement.

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