Ongwen through the eyes of new lawyers
What you need to know:
- The former LRA rebel commander’s lawyers lift the lid on his life in prison as he appeals his long jail term at the ICC.
In three days, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
The court, established by the Rome Statute in 2002, had Uganda’s Dominic Ongwen as the first suspect on referral by the Uganda government.
Ongwen, who tells his lawyers he was born around 1978, 44 years ago, has gone through some rehabilitation since he was first brought the enormous throne of justice set up to try suspects for war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and the crime of aggression.
To many, ICC can be a scary word. One would imagine that Ongwen must be either enjoying life or suffering as a result of the 25-year sentence slapped on him for 61 of the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that his former lead defence counsel Krispus Ayena Odongo appealed.
As the world awaits the appeals chamber decision in December 2022, our reporters had an opportunity to chat with Ongwen’s new lead defence lawyer, Mr Charles Achalette Taku, a Cameroonian with 25 years of experience in international law practice.
Mr Taku became lead counsel in June when Mr Oyena withdrew due to what the court termed as “breakdown in communication”.
On Thursday last week, Mr Taku agreed to a lunch conversation with a group of nine Ugandan journalists. The arrangement was outside the Hague-based court at around 1pm.
The casual conversation away from Mr Taku’s formal court duties gave our journalists a hint into what life is like for Mr Ongwen, a man his lawyer says is “passionate about the education of his children (in northern Uganda)”.
Mr Taku together with another defence lawyer on the Ongwen team, Mr Thomas Obhof, referred to their client as a likeable person compared to what he was when he was first brought to the ICC on January 4, 2015.
Before lunch was served, Mr Obhof excused himself to answer a phone call. On return, he said: “I want to apologise for ‘moving out’. Dominic (Ogwen) actually called and I had to receive. I thought the meeting was later today and I am like ‘no,’ we are having a lunch meeting.”
Asked whether he was communicating to Ongwen in English, Mr Obhof said: “Yes. But when you ask me about Dominic’s English level, he is definitely not fluent. He is not even intermediate yet, maybe kindergarten. His English teacher said he understood around 450 English words. He can read and differentiate between present, future, past tenses.”
Whereas Ongwen has time to learn English or play soccer within the detention centre, the lawyers said he loves music and his piano classes are his favourite.
He used to learn together with Military Chief of Staff Bosco Ntaganda convicted of war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ntaganda also taught Ongwen how to bake cakes, Mr Obhof says.
This attention to details of detainees’ lives perhaps shows how close Ongwen is to his lawyers.
Mr Obhof also says Ongwen can averagely communicate in many languages, including Lingala, Arabic, and Kiswahili, besides his mother tongue, Acholi. By the age of nine when he was abducted by the LRA, Ongwen could mainly speak Acholi.
“He is very passionate about his native Acholi language. Anybody from Acholi makes him nostalgic. If you were to ask me, the Dominic I see now is a very likeable person. There are very few times he calls and he is very calm except if provoked,” says Mr Taku.
He adds that most of the things that make Ongwen angry are witness statements in court. But he usually calls and talks to his lawyers on a regular basis to let off his ‘steam’.
“I do not know how many times he calls you,” Mr Taku says, pointing to Mr Obhof, who responds; “He is strange. He will not call me for two days then he will call me five times the next two days.
The person he is most consistent with calling is Gordon [lawyer] because he knows a little bit of Acholi and when they are stuck on a word, they go back and forth trying to make it simpler for him.”
During the trial, the lawyers say Ongwen often claimed that LRA Leader Joseph Kony was appearing and talking to him in his dream.
Without disclosing what medication Ongwen was taking, Mr Taku says after the trial, he had stabilised and was not on medication until recently.
Ongwen also has access to a priest once a week and through interactive television he communicates to others on request. He usually inquires about his family back in Uganda through his lawyers who have to find out and give him feedback.
Ongwen has access to teachers and lawyers at all times.
This could be a rehabilitation measure that provides suspects and convicts with options to study languages that can help them communicate better with the people around them, without requiring an interpreter all the time.
Ongwen’s first encounter with things legal involved a lot of interpretations from English to Luo.
The court also uses French but for Ongwen, learning not just English but music occupies his time as he awaits the Appeals Chamber on his years in jail.
A man whose novel case involves a lot of jurisprudence that will guide other future rulings on international humanitarian law is but a wonder to many on how he manages to live in solitary confinement untill another decision to either reduce his sentence, let him out or have him serve his sentence when he shall perhaps walk back home to his people in Acholi land or decide what to make of his life on earth.
For now, journalists from different countries go through the request procedure to talk to Ogwen from the ICC detention facility through interactive television. This comes after a ban by the court on any journalist talking to Ongwen was relaxed.
“When someone goes through the right procedure and asks Ongwen if they can talk to him and he says yes, as his lawyer, I cannot stop him and I have no control over what he must have told the journalists from Canada (who recently visited and talked to him),” Mr. Taku says to emphasize that access to Ongwen is available but upon request.
The visitors who see Ongwen at the detention centre or prison in the Hague are not allowed to publish content about the actual case until after the decision of the Appeals Chamber.
On May 6, 2021, the Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) sentenced Dominic Ongwen to 25 years in prison after he was found guilty of 61 crimes comprising crimes against humanity and war crimes, committed in Northern Uganda between July 1, 2002, and December 31, 2005. However, he has appealed the case before the ICC Appeals Chamber.