Warlord Who Rose From Ranks of Child Army Gets 25 Years

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

Dominic Ongwen at the Dec. 6 opening of his trial at the International Criminal Court (Photo by ICC-CPI via Courthouse News)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Marking the second-longest punishment it has ever given, the International Criminal Court on Thursday sentenced a Ugandan man who commanded the Lord’s Resistance Army to 25 years in prison. 

“The decision today was especially difficult and weighed on the minds of all three of us,” Judge Bertram Schmitt told The Hague-based courtroom. The world’s only permanent court for atrocity crimes convicted Onwgen of 61 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity in February, following a trial that lasted four years. 

Ongwen was 9 years old, a child walking to school, when he was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a quasi-Christian organization that terrorized Uganda and neighboring countries throughout the 1980s under the leadership of the self-declared prophet Joseph Kony. As Ongwen rose in the group’s ranks with age, he led attacks on camps of displaced persons and forcibly took many young women and girls as his so-called wives. 

Ongwen’s defense in the ICC proceedings sought a sentence of time served, leaning heavily on their client’s status as a former victim. Lawyers for the more than 4,000 victims in the case meanwhile pushed for the maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. “If he were my own child, I would say he should die for his crimes so the people who have suffered can get justice,” said victim’s lawyer Joseph Manoba at an earlier sentencing hearing, relaying what the victim said. 

Judge Schmitt told the court that the violence Ongwen experienced as a young child kept the three-judge panel from sentencing the 43-year-old Ugandan to 30 years. During a rambling, two-hour-long speech during an April sentencing hearing, Ongwen described being forced, as a child soldier, to disembowel civilians, wear their intestines around his neck, and eat beans soaked in their blood. 

The defense also argued Ongwen should face a traditional justice mechanism in lieu of prison time. “There is no option for the chamber to include a traditional justice mechanism,” Schmitt said of the Rome Statute which created the court in 2002. Ongwen was expressionless as he stood, wearing a gray suit and surgical mask, while the sentence was read out.

Dominic Ongwen, alleged Brigade Commander of the Sinia Brigade of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). (Interpol image via Courthouse News)

The sentencing decision was not unanimous. Judge Raul Cano Pangalangan offered a dissenting opinion, arguing that given the extreme nature of Ongwen’s crimes, he should be given the maximum penalty of 30 years. 

Ongwen was the lowest-ranking of the LRA commanders indicted by the court in 2005. Kony has also been charged, but his whereabouts are unknown and the three other people charged by the court have since died or are presumed to be dead. Ongwen turned himself in to U.S. Special Forces who were searching for Kony in the Central African Republic, after having fallen out of Kony’s good graces. 

It is not yet known where Ongwen will serve his sentence. According to the Rome Statute, which created the court in 2002, anyone convicted by the court will serve their sentence in a member state which agrees to accept such prisoners. Twelve countries have agreed to do so, and another eight have agreed to take their own nationals. Uganda is not among them. In 2015, however, the court was able to negotiate an arrangement with the Democratic Republic of Congo to take two Congolese men convicted by the court. 

The court will now evaluate what the victims should be given in reparations. The defense has indicated that it will appeal. 

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