DOMINIC Ongwen, one of the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that caused death and destruction in Northern Uganda, was on Thursday found guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between July 2002 and December 2005.
Ongwen is the first LRA leader to be tried before the ICC, and the first to be convicted for LRA crimes anywhere in the world.
The LRA abducted over 30,000 boys and girls and forced them to become soldiers, labourers, and sex slaves.
Ongwen was one such victim when he was abducted as a 10-year-old child in 1990.
The ICC does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by anyone under 18, but Ongwen was tried for crimes he committed as an adult.
Ongwen’s lawyers have 30 days to appeal.
The ICC will also conduct hearings on sentencing and possible reparations for victims.
In welcoming the verdict, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that Ongwen’s abduction as a young child and the brutality he may have experienced should be considered as mitigating factors.
However, the judges did not find evidence of duress or mental illness or defect that would negate his culpability for the crimes.
‘The LRA terrorised the people of northern Uganda and its neighbouring countries for more than two decades,’ said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at HRW.
‘One LRA leader has at last been held to account at the ICC for the terrible abuses victims suffered.
‘Would-be rights violators should take note that the law can catch up with them, even years later,’ she added.
The abducted boys and girls were forced to beat or trample to death other children who attempted to escape and were repeatedly told they would be killed if they tried to run away. At the height of LRA activity in the early 2000s, as many as 40,000 children, known as the ‘night commuters,’ each night fled their homes in the countryside to sleep in the relative safety of towns to avoid abduction.
Ongwen is the only LRA commander among five charged by the ICC who is in custody.
LRA leader Joseph Kony is an outstanding fugitive and the other three are declared to be or presumed dead.
HRW said the conviction of Ongwen was a major step for justice for widespread atrocities committed by the LRA.
It said that the guilty verdict ‘shows that rights abusers can find themselves held to account even if years have passed since their crimes’.
HRW said governments committed to justice for victims of LRA atrocities needed to revisit how to ensure Kony’s ultimate arrest and surrender, urging the UN, African Union, and the Economic Community of Central African States to support such efforts.
‘Ongwen’s trial and conviction are major developments, but they should not obscure the need for Joseph Kony’s arrest and surrender,” Keppler said.
‘Countries should recommit themselves to seeing Joseph Kony face the ICC once and for all.’