Dominic Ongwen, former commander of a Ugandan rebel group who was kidnapped as a child and rose through the ranks of the militia, was found guilty of war crimes and against humanity on Thursday by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The verdict has not yet been passed, but the defendant is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Ongwen, 45, was a leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel militia that terrorized Uganda for more than 20 years while fighting the government of President Yoweri Museveni.
According to the United Nations, the LRA was responsible for the deaths of more than 100,000 people and the kidnapping of more than 60,000 children who were used as sex slaves or as combatants. The group’s campaign of terror in the country ended in 2005 when the Ugandan military expelled the LRA from Uganda and dispersed its members to several African countries, including Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.
Ongwen has been involved in LRA crimes for over 25 years. However, his trial in The Hague only concerns crimes committed in camps in northern Uganda between 2002 and 2005.
Following the ICC ruling, the former commander ordered the murder and kidnapping of thousands of civilians in attacks on Ugandan government-protected camps, sexually enslaved women and forced children to join the ranks of the rebel group. Ongwen was found guilty of 61 of the 70 crimes he was charged with, including the enslavement of people, murder, rape and torture.
The case of Dominic Ongwen, the first LRA member to appear on trial in The Hague, poses a complex challenge for the ICC as the former commander of the rebel group in 1988, when he was just ten years old, was himself from the LRA was kidnapped.
As Al-Jazeera Kristolf Titeca of the University of Antwerp in Belgium noted, the Ongwen case presents a “major dilemma” for the judges as there is a “major gray area” to determine the boundaries between victim and perpetrator.
Ongwen’s defense team asked for absolution, carefully arguing that the former commandant was abducted as a child, which was affecting his sanity and ability to make conscious decisions. However, the Hague judge held that when Ongwen committed the crimes, he was neither coerced nor threatened.
“There is no basis to exclude Dominic Ongwen from criminal liability. His guilt has been established beyond any doubt, ”said Bertram Schmitt, President of the Hague Jury, reading the judgment.
At just ten years old, Ongwen became a child soldier who rose through the ranks of the rebel group over the years and became one of the main leaders of the group, led by Joseph Kony, a refugee and respected warlord, the chief architect of the crimes of the LRA who attempted one to build theocratic regime in Uganda.
Joseph Kony and Dominic Ongwen were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2005, and the ICC issued two arrest warrants at the time. Kony remains on the run and Ongwen surrendered to the Central African Republic in 2014. His trial lasted more than three years and ended in March 2020.
The ICC has not yet published the ruling and Judge Bertram Schmitt has given assurances that the child soldier’s track record will be taken into account. However, he warned, “This case is about crimes that Dominic Ongwen has committed as a fully responsible adult and LRA commander for over 20 years.”
Human Rights Watch hailed the ICC decision as “a historic milestone for the victims”.