THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — The International Criminal Court on Thursday convicted a former commander in the notorious Ugandan rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army of dozens of war crimes and crimes against humanity ranging from multiple murders to forced marriages.
Dominic Ongwen, who was abducted by the shadowy militia as a 9-year-old boy and transformed into a child soldier and later promoted to a senior leadership rank, faces a maximum punishment of life imprisonment after being convicted of 61 offenses.
Defense lawyers had argued that Ongwen was a “victim and not a victim and perpetrator at the same time.”
But Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt rejected those arguments, saying: “This 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.”
Reading a summary of the written judgment, Schmitt described the reign of terror unleashed by the LRA, which was founded and led by one of the world’s most-wanted war crimes suspects, Joseph Kony.
Female civilians captured by the group were turned into sex slaves and wives for fighters. The LRA made children into soldiers. Men, women and children were murdered in attacks on camps for internally displaced people.
“Civilians were shot, burned and beaten to death,” Schmitt said as he detailed a May 2004 attack on a camp in the Ugandan village of Lukodi carried out by fighters commanded by Ongwen.
Kony promoted Ongwen to the rank of colonel after the attack.
On Thursday, scores of Lukodi residents gathered around a portable radio to follow the proceedings in The Hague. Some broke down, weeping, when the guilty verdicts came in, according to a local journalist at the scene.
Ongwen showed no emotion as the verdicts were read in court. Usually, defendants are ordered to stand as the presiding judge reads out the verdicts. In Ongwen’s case, there were so many that he was allowed to remain seated.
“The LRA terrorized the people of northern Uganda and its neighboring 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,” said Elise Keppler, associate director of the International Justice Program of Human Rights Watch. “Would-be rights violators should take note that the law can catch up with them, even years later.”
The court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, told judges at Ongwen’s trial that his traumatic upbringing in the cult-like militia led by Kony could be a mitigating factor, if he was convicted. But she said it could not be used as a defense against what Bensouda described as Ongwen’s choice “to embrace the murderous violence used by the LRA and make it a hallmark of the attacks carried out by his soldiers.”
The Lord’s Resistance Army, which began in Uganda as an anti-government rebellion, is accused of atrocities including mass killings, recruiting boys to fight and keeping girls as sex slaves. At the peak of its power, the group was a notoriously brutal outfit whose members for years eluded Ugandan forces in the bushland of northern Uganda, where the civil war forced hundreds of thousands into camps for the internally displaced.
When military pressure forced the LRA out of Uganda in 2005, the rebels scattered across parts of central Africa. Reports over the years have claimed Kony was hiding in Sudan’s Darfur region or in a remote corner of Central African Republic, where LRA fighters continued to kill and abduct in occasional raids on villages, and where Ongwen was arrested in 2015.
Kony became internationally notorious in 2012 when the U.S.-based advocacy group Invisible Children made a viral video highlighting the LRA’s crimes. By that time the group had already been weakened by defections as it splintered into smaller, highly mobile groups led by commanders eager to evade capture. Uganda’s military estimated in 2013 that the group comprised no more than a few hundred fighters.
“Today’s verdict is a reminder that the LRA’s chief leader, Joseph Kony, remains a fugitive who has evaded justice for more than 15 years,” Keppler said, calling on nations to recommit to bringing him to justice at the ICC.”
Invisible Children said this week that 108 children abducted by the LRA remain missing.
Associated Press writer Rodney Muhumuza in Kampala, Uganda, contributed.