Parliament. Government is to send a team of defence lawyers for former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander, Maj Gen Dominic Ongwen, when his trial commences at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Governt referred the LRA case to the ICC in 2003 after Parliament ratified the Rome Statute a year earlier. Ongwen and other top rebel commanders, including their leader Joseph Kony, were indicted in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Daily Monitor understands that the Attorney General, Mr Peter Nyombi is working with the acting foreign affairs minister, Mr Okello Oryem to ensure Maj Gen Ongwen, who recently surrendered to American soldiers in Central African Republic gets legal representation. While Mr Nyombi was not readily available for comment, Mr Oryem yesterday confirmed the development at a news conference, where he asserted that the government will assist Ongwen.
“Government will ensure that Ongwen gets the best lawyers available to assist him access fair trial,” Mr Oryem said.
Without offering details, Mr Oryem said 30 lawyers, both local and international, had contacted the Attorney General, the Director of Public Prosecution and the ministry of Foreign Affairs expressing interest in Ongwen’s case.
Ongwen will have a say in selection
Mr Oryem explained that Ongwen will have lawyers of his choice and that one of the 30 lawyers who have contacted government represented the son of the former Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi.
When asked to clarify on payment for Ongwen’s lawyers and whether such a decision would not complicate the government petition to ICC, State Minister for Regional Cooperation, Mr Asuman Kiyingi said,“The government is volunteering international lawyers who want to represent him.”
“ICC will decide. Our Attorney General and DPP will be working with the ICC Prosecutor,” Mr Kiyingi said.
However, later Mr Kiyingi sought to absolve government when he said: “The government has nothing to do with international lawyers volunteering [in Ongwen’s case]. It’s pro bono representation.”
Defending government’s decision to help former rebel leader access justice at The Hague, Mr Oryem said Ongwen was abducted while he was still a minor, aged 10, against his will. He explained that Ongwen grew up in the hands of the rebels with no choice but to go by their instructions. However, the minister didn’t explain why the government referred Ongwen to ICC yet he was abducted while he was still a minor.
Talking about the ICC, Mr Oryem said: “It is only fair that ICC recognises that he was recruited as a young boy. I am sure ICC is very competent. Ongwen was abducted against his will to engage in these crimes.”
The minister also said that the government would cooperate with the ICC prosecutor if it applies to extend the wishes for cooperation including access and facilitating witnesses from Uganda.
As a victim, as well as a suspected perpetrator of the most serious war crimes against humanity committed in the 21-year-insurgency in northern Uganda, Maj Gen Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, is currently in the custody of The Hague based ICC.
Victim ready to testify
In a related development, the chairperson of Acholi Parliamentary Group, Mr Reagan Okumu, yesterday paraded at parliament Mr Titus Obali, who he claimed was one of the victims of the war in northern Uganda. Mr Obali, who expressed readiness to travel to The Hague as a witness, alleged Ongwen abducted him and other children at the age of 15. He said he remained in captivity for 10 months, two weeks and two days before he managed to escape. Mr Okumu called for truth-telling and sought to open fresh wounds when he alleged that the ICC investigations into the war crimes in northern Uganda left out the key evidence on the crimes committed by both sides in the conflict. He said he was writing a book containing all the atrocities committed in the north for record purposes.
“The trial of Ongwen is going to open the Pandora box. It’s going to mark the beginning of a truth-telling story detailing how the formerly abducted children in northern Uganda suffered. Ongwen’s trial is a blessing in disguise,” Mr Okumu said.
Mr Okumu, who was speaking for Acholi legislators, said more than 90 per cent of former LRA fighters were innocent children abducted by rebel commander Joseph Kony because the government failed to protect them.
“There should be no controversy, what we want is government to send lawyers to The Hague to defend Ongwen because they failed to protect him. This is why for us we were pushing for dialogue because we never wanted these innocent children to be killed,” Mr Okumu said.
Information Minister Rose Namayanja described Okumu’s claim that the government failed to protect the children as “loose talk.” The minister reminded the MP that Kony did not go to CAR for a picnic, and that he was forced out by the UPDF and that “peace and development has returned to northern Uganda.”
“It’s unfair for Okumu and any other person to say that government failed to protect the children when we lost soldiers in trying to ensure that peace prevails in northern Uganda. We have on many occasions rescued children from DRC, South Sudan and CAR,” Ms Namayanja said.
Describing Ongwen as an innocent person, Okumu said the abducted children who attempted to escape were put on firing squad and others were tortured, and concurred that government should facilitate Ongwen’s defence lawyers.
Ongwen faces seven charges at The Hague and the circumstance of his participation in crimes committed by the LRA could form part of his defence in the coming days. But in the event of his conviction, Amnesty International chief says his abduction at the age of 10 and conscription into the LRA could also be taken into account in sentencing.
Only five Ugandan lawyers fit for ICC
Despite government announcing it will hire lawyers to represent Maj Gen Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels, Daily Monitor has established that the country has less than five lawyers who have been accredited by the ICC to represent a suspect.
The Ugandan lawyers who have been accredited and are now eligible to practice at the ICC include MacDosman Kabega, Peter Kabatsi, Justice Eva Luswata and John Francis Onyango who is an assistant counsel.
The government yesterday through the junior Foreign Affairs minister Okello Oryem said they had written to the DPP asking for about 30 lawyers to represent Ongwen at the ICC trial that is yet to commence. The minister said some of the lawyers will be hired from outside Uganda including America.
Renowned criminal lawyer Kabega explained that for one to be accredited to be on the list of ICC counsel, one must apply to the court and must have practiced as a lawyer for at least 10 years in his/her country.
He added that the successful applicant must have received an endorsement of good conduct from the Chief Justice, Attorney General or Solicitor General of his/her country.
Mr Kabega further explained that the accredited counsel does not only represent the suspect such as Ongwen but he or she can represent the prosecution and the victims of the atrocities committed by the suspect.
Maj Gen Ongwen is indicted on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that he committed during the two -decade war in the northern part of the country under Kony’s LRA insurgency .
He was captured on January 3 in the CAR jungles by the largely Muslim Seleka rebels in Kotétroi village, Sam Ouandja province, in the northeastern region of Haute Kotto. The rebels then handed him over to the American troops hunting the LRA in CAR on January 5. He was at the weekend flown to the Hague where he is expected to stand trial.
By Anthony Wesaka