Ongwen is guilty; now get us Kony, says US

Dominic Ongwen, former commander of Sinia Brigade of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in the dock at the ICC recently. PHOTO | ICC

The US State Department will uphold its $5 million bounty on Joseph Kony, the leader of Uganda’s rebel group the Lord’s Resistance Army, which has in over two decades committed atrocities in northern Uganda, South Sudan and parts of central Africa.

The US announcement on Friday came just a day after The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted LRA former commander Dominic Ongwen for crimes against humanity, sexual and gender based violence including rape and forced pregnancy.

In a statement by Ned Price, a Department spokesperson, the US welcomed the Court’s verdict and maintained that the $5 million bounty it put on Kony in 2013 is still valid.

“The United States continues to offer a reward of up to $5 million for information that leads to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army,” Mr Price said.

On the conviction of Mr Ongwen, the US, which helped facilitate the voluntary surrender and transfer of Ongwen to the ICC in 2015, called the verdict a significant step for justice and accountability for atrocities committed by the LRA.

“While we continue to believe the ICC is in need of significant reform, we are pleased to see Mr Ongwen brought to justice,” Mr Price said.

Trial Chamber IX unanimously found Mr Ongwen guilty beyond reasonable doubt for 61 out of the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity he had been charged with more than 15 years ago.

The chamber ruled that Mr Ongwen was “fully responsible” for attacks on four camps for internally displaced people, for sexual and gender-based crimes against seven women who became his “so-called wives” and for conscripting and using children as soldiers. The chamber also found him guilty of sexual and gender-based crimes committed indirectly against other women or girls.

The other members of Trial Chamber IX are Judges Péter Kovács and Raul Pangalangan.

“He planned his attacks carefully and assessed the risks fully with his officers,” said Judge Schmitt.

He said the chamber also took into consideration the observations of “witnesses who were held as his so-called wives” and others who were close to Mr Ongwen. The judge said none of them observed any behaviour that showed Mr Ongwen had a mental disease during the period he committed the crimes

The judges dismissed the defence’s arguments that Mr Ongwen had a mental disease during the time he committed the crimes he has been convicted of. The judges also dismissed the defence that Mr Ongwen acted under duress. During this three-year period, the chamber heard 69 prosecution witnesses and received written evidence from another 40 witnesses.

One of Mr Ongwen’s lawyers, Charles Taku, has indicated that the defence will appeal his conviction. The defence has 30 days from the date of the verdict to file their appeal.

The human rights fraternity has also praised the conviction of Mr Ongwen, as victory to victims and a major step to bring those who commit war crimes to account.

Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the guilty verdict   shows that rights abusers can find themselves held to account even if years have passed since their crimes.

“One LRA leader has at last been held to account at the ICC for the victims of the terrible abuse suffered. Would-be rights violators should take note that the law can catch up with them, even years later,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

However, Mr Keppler said that Ongwen’s trial and conviction should not obscure the need for the arrest of Kony and countries in the region should recommit themselves to seeing LRA leader face the ICC once and for all.

Uganda referred the situation in northern Uganda to the ICC in July 29, 2004. After year in the run, Ongwen surrendered himself to the US forces in the Central African Republic in January 2015, and his trial before the ICC began in December 2016.

Ongwen is the only LRA leader among five charged by the ICC who is in custody. Three are declared to be or presumed dead, while Kony is still hiding presumably in Central African Republic.

Ongwen had been one such victim, as he was abducted into the LRA 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 is the only LRA leader among five charged by the ICC who is in custody. Three are declared to be or presumed dead, while Kony is still hiding presumably in Central African Republic.

ICC Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in a statement soon after the verdict that the truth was established through this important judgment and justice was served. 

“Through the court’s crucial work, an important message was sent globally that perpetrators of atrocities must be and will be held accountable,” said Ms Bensouda.