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Warlord who was once child soldier loses appeal

Dominic Ongwen was kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army as a child and went on to become a commander in the organization. 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — An appeals chamber at the International Criminal Court upheld the conviction and sentence of a former Ugandan warlord on Thursday, highlighting the challenge of judging someone who was both a victim and a perpetrator. 

Lawyers for Dominic Ongwen brought more than 100 counts of appeal in a bid to overturn Ongwen's 2021 conviction by The Hague-based court for war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the Lord’s Resistance Army, a Christian extremist group. None proved successful

Approximately 44 years old (his age is disputed), Ongwen was the first defendant at the ICC to have admitted to participating in some of the crimes with which he was charged. Ongwen was 9 years old, a child walking to school, when he was kidnapped by the organization that terrorized Uganda and neighboring countries throughout the 1980s under the leadership of the self-declared prophet Joseph Kony.  

“It is the first time the court is called upon to address the unique situation of victim-perpetrator,”  presiding judge Luz del Carmen Ibáñez Carranza said, in reading out the judgment. Ongwen, who was in the courtroom wearing a gray suit and red-striped tie, sat expressionlessly. 

Ongwen was convicted on 61 charges including murder, rape, sexual enslavement and using child soldiers, and sentenced to 25 years in jail. ” During appeals hearings in February, his lawyers alleged “legal, factual and procedural errors." 

Ultimately, however, judges were unmoved by the 90 grounds of appeal Ongwen put forward against his conviction. “Being a victim of crimes does not constitute in and of itself a justification for similar or other crimes,” Ibáñez Carranza said. 

The defense team also appealed the sentence, arguing the trial chamber had failed to properly account for Ongwen’s childhood and mental health. The court rejected Ongwen’s 12 grounds of appeal, although Ibáñez Carranza noted her own dissent saying that she felt there should have been an “appropriate reduction” to his punishment. 

Eighteen organizations also filed amicus briefs in the case, highlighting various legal issues. The court described the appeal as the “largest ever considered by the chamber, raising complex and novel issues.” 

“This is an important day for victims,” Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch said in an interview with Courthouse News when Ongwen was convicted. “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.” 

Kony and the LRA came into the global 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 first aired, and it brought immense attention to the plight of child soldiers in Uganda. 

Last month, the ICC’s chief prosecutor Karim Khan asked the court to move forward in confirming the pending charges against Kony. A warrant has been out for his arrest since 2005 but his whereabouts are unknown. If Khan is successful, it would mark the first time the court has advanced a case before a defendant is in custody. 

Uganda, a landlocked central African country, has been mired in conflict since its colonial independence in the 1960s. The LRA has been operating since 1987 but lacks a clear political agenda, instead functioning as a personality cult focused on Kony, a self-declared prophet. It has displaced some 2.5 million people across Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 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. 

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