LRA trials: is justice being done in Ongwen and Kwoyelo cases?

19 January 2017 by Stephanie van den Berg

This week the trial of Dominic Ongwen [IJT-196] resumed in The Hague with the first witnesses testifying before the ICC. So far it is the prosecution setting up its case with expert witnesses on Ugandan history and the emergence of the Lords' Resistance Army (LRA) and army officials on how the radio intercepts of LRA communication worked.

IJT spoke with Ledio Cakaj, a researcher who has spent the last eight years interviewing hundreds of former LRA members, fighters, abductees and abductees-turned-fighters like Ongwen to understand how the LRA functions. He is also the author of the book “When the Walking Defeats You: One man's journey as Joseph Kony's bodyguard” which came out late last year. We asked Cakaj his views on the Ongwen case and the upcoming trial of Thomas Kwoyelo [IJT-192], another former LRA commander, in Uganda itself. Are these trials justice being done or were Kwoyelo and Ongwen just convenient defendants?



People watching the opening of Dominic Ongwen's trial in Lukodi, the site of the largest single massacre by the LRA which features in the charges against Ongwen (Photo: Flickr/ICC-CPI)
Image caption: 
People watching the opening of Dominic Ongwen's trial in Lukodi, the site of the largest single massacre by the LRA which features in the charges against Ongwen (Photo: Flickr/ICC-CPI)

How do you see the ICC case against Ongwen?

Ledio Cakaj (LC): I am not critical of the ICC per se but I do have concerns about this particular case. Had (LRA leader Joseph) Kony been on trial, had (Kony's second-in-command Vincent) Otti been on trial, I would have no reservations that that would have been the right thing to do. With Ongwen it is hard not to feel conflicted.

I still don't understand why the ICC went after Ongwen. Out of the five people who were indicted (in 2005), four were top commanders: They were there from the early days, they created the LRA. Ongwen sticks out as the guy who was clearly abducted as a child. I am not arguing Ongwen did nothing wrong, I am sure he did things. But why did they choose him, and not some other LRA fighters who were abducted as children and had some responsibilities in the LRA. There are many similar cases. There is still very little understanding of how the LRA works … but a lot of people in Ongwen's position did similar things to what he did. Many of these men who were abducted as children were taken under the wing of a top commander, like Otti or Kony, and were probably conditioned to commit violence. For one reason or another Ongwen was singled out.

I hope that the ICC investigators did not take to heart everything the (Ugandan army) UPDF or government officials told them. This was after all a fight with two sides, the LRA on one side and the Ugandan army on the other. There are these issues of how was the evidence gathered, was there any bias?

In Uganda there is a case against another former LRA commander Kwoyelo who was not allowed to benefit from an amnesty arrangement like many others. How is his case and Ongwen's case seen by Ugandans?

LC: With Kwoyelo I am baffled as to why he is being prosecuted. It seems to me he was eligible for amnesty. He was not a top commander, he was not mentioned or indicted by the ICC. He hadn't done anything particularly heinous that I know of . It seems like a strange personal case that somebody decided that he should be prosecuted and Kwoyelo has become sort of a guinea pig for the high court and the international crimes division.

The Kwoyelo case has certainly had an impact on some of the perceptions of people wanting to leave the LRA and come out of the bush. When the international NGOs and the US army advisors do these demobilization messages via the radio they say 'come back home, its going to be okay, you won't be prosecuted'. Kony on the other hand has been saying for literally the last 30 years 'don't go out (of  the LRA), or you will be put on trial' . Then something like Kwoyelo happens and it reinforces some of the worst fears the LRA members – many of whom have been abducted as children-- and it is not very helpful to encourage defections.

At the start of his trial last year Ongwen spoke in court saying that he understood the charges but not why he was charged with crimes because “it was the LRA who committed atrocities” and the “LRA is Joseph Kony and not me”. What impression did he make on you?

LC: I am amazed that Ongwen has kept it together, he must be bewildered going from 20 odd years in the bush, sleeping in the forest, to going to this court that must be like a warped reality for him. I thought his speech was quite poignant and sad. He is saying 'I was taken and made to serve this organisation I did not want to be in in the first place. I was used and now here I am standing accused of being of what I have been trying to escape for a while'.

I believe Ongwen had been wanting to leave the LRA for a while. I have seen this with other fighters where they have told me literally 'I was taken when I was a child, I didn't know any better. I was told this is what you need to do. And then as I grew up and understood the world better I realized I was being taken advantage of and Kony was using us'.

How do you see the court case unfolding? His defence seems to be putting everything on the duress argument while the prosecution and the judges have so far said that this can only be considered a mitigating circumstance.

LC: I hope the defense can do as professional of a job as possible. This case is going to be important not just for Ongwen and for the victims but also for the legal precedents of how we deal with these cases. This is a fascinating case. One thing that I hope receives more attention is the fact that Ongwen might have not been necessarily under physical duress throughout his time in the LRA but he certainly would have been under some sort of psychological duress.

We either want to see child soldiers as victims or in this case as perpetrators but in real life I doubt that it is always the case. Think of how you would react if you were in a situation of danger: you would not just sit there and take it. You would try to survive. That is a basic instinct. I find it strange to hear some people say Ongwen shouldn't have done this or that, especially by people who might have not been even remotely in the same position he was. He was put in an organisation where that was how you survived. Some people in Uganda explained it very bluntly to me and said 'maybe those who pass judgment on Ongwen so easily should give their children to Kony and see how they turn out'. It is a crude way of putting it but it does highlight the complexity and difficulty of this case.

In the end I believe it is just a tragic situation. It's tragic for Ongwen, it's tragic for all the people that were hurt by the LRA but there is no way you can have a straight answer here. It's complicated, it's grey zones. I am not sure if the right response is to acquit him or to convict him or if what happened to him should just be mitigating factors. This case is not going to be straightforward.


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