Will the International Criminal Court care about Ongwen’s rotten childhood?

28 January 2015 by Tjitske Lingsma, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Dominic Ongwen, a Ugandan commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday for a pretrial hearing. What now? IJT asked two experts what they expected of this first ICC case against a former child soldier-turned-perpetrator.

Ex-LRA commander Dominic Ongwen surrounded by court guards and his defence lawyer at the ICC (Flickr/ICC-CPI)
Image caption: 
Ex-LRA commander Dominic Ongwen surrounded by court guards and his defence lawyer at the ICC (Flickr/ICC-CPI)

Despite his smart suit, crisp white shirt and matching chequered tie, Ongwen looked uncomfortable and out of context in the dock at the ICC. He spent most of his life fighting in the jungle as a high-level commander in Joseph Kony’s notorious LRA rebel group, waging wars of brutal terror for over three decades. Ongwen is accused of horrendous atrocities in Uganda and neighbouring countries.

Two uniformed guards helped him place his headphones and gave indication when it was time for him to stand and speak. Ongwen cast an uneasy look at the public gallery where journalists, diplomats and human rights activists sat. A victim later told IJT she quivered with shock the moment she saw him in court.

When ICC Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova sought to verify his background details, Ongwen replied politely. Some answers revealed new information. “I was born in 1975 and I was abducted in 1988. I was taken to the bush when I was 14 years old,” he stated. It was long believed that Ongwen was abducted at age 10, made to watch fellow abductees be beaten, maimed and killed, then forced to become a child soldier, quickly ascending the LRA ranks.

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