Heading to The Hague - Uganda reacts to surrender of top LRA man

Dominic Ongwen, a senior commander of a Ugandan rebel group, will soon be transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague to face trial on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) at the age of 10, Ongwen, who rose in the ranks of the infamous rebel outfit as a protégé of leader Joseph Kony, will be the first LRA member to appear before the ICC. Ongwen surrendered – some reports say he was captured – in the Central African Republic (CAR) earlier this month.

The ICC issued charges a decade ago against Kony, Ongwen and other LRA leaders for alleged crimes including abductions, massacres, willful killing, murder, rape, sexual enslavement, mutilation, maiming and child recruitment.

Henry Okello Oryem, Uganda’s state minister for international relations, told a news conference on 14 January that the “heinous nature” of crimes allegedly committed by Ongwen not only in Uganda but also in the Democratic Republic of Congo and CAR meant that despite the existence of an International Crimes Division in Uganda’s High Court, Uganda did not have jurisdiction to try Ongwen and that he would face justice in The Hague.

IRIN spoke to victims and close observers of the LRA within Uganda to gather their reactions.

Retired Bishop Baker Ochola, the member of Acholi Religious Peace Initiative (ALPI) – which has long campaigned for a negotiated rather than military or judicial resolution to the LRA crisis.

“It’s wrong and a bad thing to take him [Ongwen] to ICC. The government of Uganda has no moral authority to support it.

“Even if he committed serious crimes against humanity, we as religious leaders stand for forgiveness. Even those who crucified Jesus on the cross, he prayed and forgave them because they didn’t know what they were doing.

“The government should not jeopardize the lives of children and women still in LRA captivity. We appeal to the government to forgive and set him free. He should be given amnesty as any rebel who surrenders, renounces and abandons rebellion.

“Kony who started the war should be the one tried. Not children who were abducted and forced to commit crimes against their will.”

James Odongo, LRA war victim

“That guy [Ongwen] committed serious atrocities. He should be immediately transferred to The Hague to face justice. Our justice system in Uganda lacks integrity and already there are some voices calling for Ongwen to be pardoned and given amnesty.

“With the political [election] campaigns around the corner, you never know, [President Yoweri] Museveni may want to use it for political votes.”

Stephen Oola, a transitional justice and governance analyst at Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project

“Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague is a fulfillment of Uganda's obligation under the Rome Statute which it ratified and domesticated. It does not necessarily mean Ongwen will or should be tried at The Hague. If Uganda is still interested in the case, it can try and make a case to the ICC that it is willing and able to prosecute Ongwen at home.

“The challenge will be for Uganda to demonstrate that it will accord Ongwen a fair hearing in accordance with international standards. My own view is that given the Kwoyelo experience, the ICC will not accept such a request.” (Thomas Kwoyelo is a middle-ranking LRA commander whose ground-breaking trial in the International Crimes Division of Uganda’s High Court is on hold pending a ruling on his eligibility for amnesty).

"There is need for fresh investigations into the situation of northern Uganda. To the survivors and victims within northern Uganda, the majority of whom were tormented by both LRA and government forces, any proceedings which target only one party to the conflict without addressing the impunity of the other serves no justice. Both must be put on the stand.”

Winnie Laker, a war victim in Kitgum, northern Uganda

“It’s double standards by government. Why didn’t it prosecute Kenneth Banya, Onen Kamundulu and Sam Kolo [senior LRA commanders who received amnesties following their capture or surrender] who too committed atrocities in the region? Ongwen should be forgiven and pardoned. We want him to undergo Mato Oput.” (Mato Oput is a reconciliation process central to the culture of northern Uganda’s Acholi community.)

Moses Odokonyero, journalist who covered the LRA conflict, now media consultant and trainer

“A significant section of the population in northern Uganda want the now former LRA commander to be pardoned. This is unlikely. I think though that Ongwen's story as a victim-perpetrator of the conflict in northern Uganda will best be appreciated in The Hague.

“I believe Ongwen's trial at the ICC will begin the process of letting out the truth. I do appreciate that there is a court within Uganda's judicial system mandated to try crimes such as what Ongwen allegedly committed. But compared to the ICC, this is a young court.

“And considering that some in northern Uganda feel the Uganda government should be investigated and held to account, it is better that Ongwen should be tried at the ICC so there are no hindrances whatsoever for the emergence of the truth. I think this will be fair to Ongwen as victim-perpetrator and good for the victims.”

Godfrey Ojore, LRA victim in Teso

“That man [Ongwen] should be tried in Uganda where he committed atrocities. Taking him to The Hague shall involve costs that should have been used for helping the people that were affected by the war.”

Titus Obali, who spent just under a year in Ongwen's captivity before escaping

"Ongwen and his boys used killing, beating, maiming and raping as a weapon to inculcate and indoctrinate people into the LRA rebellion. He forced many children to kill people.

"I personally witnessed him kill people. He used an axe to hack one of the persons [rebels] who escaped from South Sudan with a gun. He chopped him by the neck. He called us to see. He told us if any of us tried to escape, the same would apply. We feared for our lives. They killed so many people.

"Since he has surrendered, let justice takes its course. If ICC wants me to give my testimony, I am ready to testify against him for the atrocities and crimes I witnessed him commit."

Okumu Reagan, the chairperson Acholi Parliamentary Group

“I think [the] international community needs to look at circumstances and scenarios surrounding Ongwen. That abducted children like Ongwen, who were forced and conscripted into the culture of killing, raping, mutilating, maiming, sexual enslavement and other crimes because of the failure by government to protect them, [now] face trial is an insult for humanity.

“Ongwen was abducted, indoctrinated and shaped into a killing machine against his will like other children still in LRA captivity.”

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See also: In-depth: Living with the LRA: The Juba Peace Initiative