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Former boy soldier convicted of war crimes at International Criminal Court

Dominic Ongwen faces life imprisonment

Clea Skopeliti
Thursday 04 February 2021 16:31 GMT
The commander was convicted of 61 offences
The commander was convicted of 61 offences (ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

A former child soldier who grew up to become a commander in the infamous Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been convicted of dozens of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

Dominic Ongwen, 46, was forced to become a child soldier after being kidnapped by the rebel group on his way to school at the age of nine. Ongwen went on to rise through the ranks to a senior position in the notorious militia founded and led by one of the world's most-wanted war crimes suspects, Joseph Kony.

He was convicted on Thursday of 61 offences, including murder and forced marriages. The court heard how he commanded brutal attacks on camps for displaced people in northern Uganda in 2003 and 2004, with the prosecution describing him as “a pivotal figure in the LRA’s campaign of terror across northern Uganda in the early 2000s”. Ongwen was promoted by Kony after the attacks.

The prosecution played graphic and shocking footage of the Lukodi refugee camp following an LRA raid, showing the burnt bodies of babies and disemboweled children.

Ongwen's abuse of girls and women, including rape and sexual slavery, was a key component of the dozens of charges brought against him. Among other sex crimes, the war criminal, who forced seven women to marry him, was convicted of forced pregnancy – a historic first in an international court.

The commander will be sentenced at a later date by the court in The Hague, in the Netherlands, at which point his history as a child soldier may be taken into account. Ongwen, who had denied all the charges against him, faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Ongwen's defence team had argued that the commander was a "victim and not a victim and perpetrator at the same time" – a viewpoint largely rejected by the judge presiding over the case.

Judge Bertram Schmitt said that while the circumstances in which he joined the guerilla group may be considered at sentencing, the case is "about crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen as a fully responsible adult as a commander of the LRA in his mid-to-late 20s".

"The chamber did not find evidence for the claim by the defence that he suffered from any mental disease or that he committed the crimes under duress," Mr Schmitt said.

Human Rights Watch said the conviction was a landmark victory for the LRA's victims.

Elise Keppler, associate director of the International Justice Program at the organisation, said: "The LRA terrorised the people of northern Uganda and its neighbouring 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."

People from Lukodi gather around the radio to listen to the verdict on Dominic Ongwen (AFP via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, reactions among local people in northern Uganda were described as "mixed", with Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, chairman of the northern Ugandan district of Gulu, telling the Associated Press that some were unhappy that the leader faces years in prison despite himself having been a victim, while others broke down and wept for missing children.

Invisible Children, a US-based advocacy group, said this week that 108 children abducted by the LRA remain missing.

"There are so many children who remain unaccounted for. When such a thing happens, it brings back painful memories," Mr Mapenduzi said of Ongwen's conviction.

The LRA, which started in Uganda as an anti-government rebellion, has been accused of widespread human rights atrocities, including murder, recruiting child soldiers, child sex slavery and mutilation.

The militia's leader, Kony, continues to evade justice, with reports that the insurgent may be hiding in Sudan's Darfur region or in the Central African Republic, where Ongwen was arrested in 2015. The militia has splintered since it was forced out of Uganda in 2005, and officials say the group is no longer considered a threat to national security.

The LRA has killed more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children, according to the United Nations.

Additional reporting by AP

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