Statement : |

Statement of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, at the opening of Trial in the case against Dominic Ongwen

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Honourable Judges,

This trial is about violence and misery that blighted the lives of millions of people living in Northern Uganda. Ordinary civilians, who simply wanted to be allowed to live their lives in peace, could no longer live in the villages in which they had been born and raised. Violent attacks on civilian targets by an armed group calling itself the "Lord's Resistance Army",  or "LRA", had resulted in those ordinary people being forced into camps for internally displaced persons ("IDPs"), and often reduced to dependency on international food aid. These camps were themselves subject to regular and terrifying attacks.

According to the United Nations, by the middle of 2005, well over a million people in the Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts of the Acholi sub-region were registered as living in IDP camps.  Meanwhile in the Apac and Lira districts of the Lango sub-region, there were camps holding almost half a million registered inhabitants.  And in the Katakwi, Soroti, Kumi and Kaberamaido districts of the Teso sub-region, over 150,000 people were similarly displaced.

When these camps were attacked by the LRA, the attackers murdered residents, burned their homes, and  enslaved survivors who were made to carry away  domestic animals, food, clothes, money and other basic necessities which the inhabitants needed to survive. Children were abducted on a more permanent basis to be conscripted into the ranks of the attackers as child soldiers and forced to act as sex slaves.

In the course of this trial, the Court will hear about four particular attacks, which took place between October 2003 and June 2004.  These attacks took place at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi and Abok. A conservative estimate of their combined population at the time of the attacks was about 35,000 people. Approximately 4,000 individuals have made applications to be registered in these proceedings as victims of these four attacks.

These locations form a rough triangle. Pajule is in Pader district. Odek and Lukodi in Gulu district. Abok is just over the boundary, in Oyam district of Lango. They have been selected because they are attacks about which the Prosecution has been able to find a significant and coherent body of evidence which demonstrates what happened in detail and which links them to Mr Dominic Ongwen, the accused in this case.

That evidence comes, for the most part, in three varieties. Firstly, the Prosecution relies upon accounts given by the victims of these attacks. Secondly, the Prosecution will call former LRA fighters to give evidence about what they did and who ordered them to do it. Lastly, and perhaps most revealingly of all, the Prosecution will be able to put before the Court sound recordings and other reliable records of the radio communications passing between LRA commanders at the time these attacks took place. That evidence will clearly demonstrate that these four attacks at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi and Abok were terrifying.

The images now on the screen show the physical effects of one of these attacks, on the camp at Lukodi. I must warn that some of these images are extremely disturbing.

Large numbers of the civilian inhabitants of these camps were killed and wounded; these were innocent people who had no interest in the violent conflict which was taking place in Northern Uganda.  Some were brutally tortured in various cruel ways. Hundreds of them were abducted and forced to carry away the goods which had been pillaged. If they could not walk fast enough, they were beaten and killed. Nursing mothers, whose babies slowed their progress or who simply cried too loudly, watched as their babies were callously killed or thrown into the bush and left behind. 

Pillaging may sound a lesser crime by comparison with others committed during these attacks. But it is not. The victims of this crime were living on a knife-edge. Items such as domestic animals, cooking pots, clothing, and small amounts of food and cash were the difference between surviving and perishing. For the LRA, the arithmetic was simple: they had the guns, so they could pillage the goods, whatever the consequences were for the victims.

Your Honours,

The evidence shows that, in each case, Dominic Ongwen played a prominent role in the planning and execution of the four attacks. For all of them, save Pajule, he did so as the commander of one of the four principal operational units of the LRA, the Sinia brigade.

In addition to his responsibility for the attacks on the four camps, the Prosecution charges him with crimes related to the abduction of children and their use by the LRA as child soldiers or forced wives and sex slaves.

The purpose of these proceedings is to establish whether it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that Dominic Ongwen bears criminal responsibility for these crimes.

In the course of the trial, light will inevitably be shed more generally on the situation in Northern Uganda a decade and a half ago. But there will be many events, many crimes, many perpetrators of crimes and many victims who will receive only limited attention or none at all.

The Prosecution has to make choices guided by the evidence readily available and to limit the scope of the cases that it brings. Our efforts will be to ensure that this trial will establish the truth and nothing but the truth with regard to the charged crimes. We cannot hope to write, in this trial, a comprehensive history of the conflict in Northern Uganda.

Your Honours,

Over the period with which this case is concerned, Dominic Ongwen became one of the most senior commanders in the LRA. Between 2002 and 2005, he was the commander, first of a battalion and then, following rapid promotion based on his unwavering loyalty and ferocity, of one of the four fighting brigades of the LRA. There is evidence to suggest that, by the second half of 2005, Mr Ongwen was the most senior LRA commander in Uganda.

So what was the nature of the LRA, the organisation in which Dominic Ongwen played such an important role, and which was causing mayhem and visiting misery on the people living in Northern Uganda?

The LRA was founded and led by a man called Joseph Kony. Kony is  one of five individuals against whom arrest warrants were issued by this Court in 2005. He remains at large.  There is good reason to believe that three of the others for whom warrants were issued by the Court, more specifically Messrs Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya and Okot Odhiambo, are deceased. The fifth, Dominic Ongwen is on trial today.

It is enough, for now, to say that LRA is an armed group which came into being in Northern Uganda in the late 1980s. It aimed to overthrow the government of Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda. At first, it was just one of a number of such groups, but by 1990, Kony's force was the only significant armed unit still fighting against the government in the Acholi homelands.  The LRA was a disciplined hierarchical armed group with a formal rank structure mirroring that of a conventional army. The headquarters unit was known as "Control Altar." Its principal active service units were four brigades named "Sinia", "Gilva", "Trinkle" and "Stockree."  Orders flowed down the chain of command. Reports on operations were transmitted back up the chain of command.  By March 2004, the Sinia brigade was commanded by Dominic Ongwen.

Discipline in the LRA was strict and punishments for infraction of the rules brutal. Attempts to escape were dealt with particularly harshly: those who were caught were either put to death or caned so severely that permanent injury was often caused. Despite this, the majority of abductees did, in the end, escape the clutches of the LRA. Many prosecution witnesses will recount to the Court how they personally were able to escape.

There were peace negotiations between the LRA and the Ugandan Government in the mid-1990s. When they failed, the Sudanese government began to provide support to the LRA. The LRA set up semi-permanent bases in Southern Sudan, from which it was able to launch its attacks on Ugandan targets.

This continued until 2002, when the Sudanese government permitted the Ugandans to enter Sudanese territory to begin a renewed military campaign against the LRA called "Iron Fist." Kony and his senior commanders evaded death or capture, but the majority of the LRA forces left Sudan and expanded their campaign in new parts of Northern Uganda, including Lira, Soroti, Apac and Katakwi districts. A series of LRA attacks and atrocities, including the four on which this trial will focus, followed with disastrous results.

Your Honours,

The Prosecution's case is that civilian camps for displaced persons were targeted because the LRA, despite its leader's claim to be fighting for freedom and democracy, viewed the civilian inhabitants of the government protected IDP Camps in Northern Uganda as their enemies.

The LRA's thinking was simple: it was a case of "if you are not for us, then you are against us." Any civilian who was unwilling to support their struggle against the government was regarded as an enemy. This amounted to persecution on political grounds – a crime against humanity. It was this persecutory policy that Dominic Ongwen and the fighters that he commanded were implementing. The crimes committed at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi and Abok were simply part of a widespread and systematic attack on the civilian population.

Between July 2002 and December 2005, there were literally hundreds of attacks on civilian targets. These were not just large-scale set-piece attacks on IDP camps. People being driven in minibuses along country roads became the subject of ambushes. Commercial vehicles were stopped and looted. Children on their way to school were abducted. These attacks had a devastating effect upon the ordinary people of Northern Uganda.

The evidence in this case will establish that Dominic Ongwen was directly involved in many of these attacks by the LRA on civilians in Northern Uganda.  Part of the case which the Prosecution alleges against him is that he knew that the crimes he committed at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi and Abok were part of the widespread and systematic attack.  Allow me to provide you some examples:

  1. LRA fighters attacked civilians at Ojwii in 2002 on Dominic Ongwen's orders;
  2. A 14 year-old boy, abducted in September 2002 from Palabek Gem, recalls Mr Ongwen ordering young children to kill civilian abductees. On one notorious occasion, Dominic Ongwen ordered this boy, and others, to kill an old man by biting him and then stoning him to death;
  3. Additionally, in 2002 there were attacks on civilians at Atiak and Pader, led or planned by Dominic Ongwen;
  4. In April 2003, Joseph Kony had been complaining, in radio exchanges with his senior commanders, that the civilian inhabitants of a camp at Lagile had become a "problem." Dominic Ongwen provided Joseph Kony with the solution for that problem: he attacked the camp at Lagile, burning houses, killing 20 civilians and abducting many others;
  5. In September 2003, shortly before the Pajule attack, Dominic Ongwen reported over the radio that he had attacked a church mission in Opit;
  6. In October 2003, Dominic Ongwen played an instrumental role in the charged attack at Pajule;
  7. In November 2003, Dominic Ongwen was reported in LRA radio traffic to have led an attack at Labwor Omor where his fighters had posed as Ugandan army soldiers, before opening fire on drinkers at a bar. The report stated that civilians were killed, others abducted and houses set ablaze;
  8. In February 2004, Dominic Ongwen reported to his superiors that he had conducted an attack at Koc Ongako, in which he had burned all the houses;
  9. In April May and June of 2004, Dominic Ongwen carried out the charged attacks at Odek, Lukodi and Abok;
  10. In August of that year, Dominic Ongwen reported the success of an ambush he had carried out on the Awach road. He recounted that several people had been killed including the driver of a "boda-boda" or motorcycle taxi;
  11. At Acet in 2004, in accordance with Dominic Ongwen's orders, boys and girls between the ages of 13 and 15 were abducted.

In addition to these attacks, the Prosecution alleges that Dominic Ongwen played an essential role in two long-term activities which were crucial to the continued existence of the LRA. Both involved the abduction of children, some as young as six, from their family homes.

In order to sustain the fighting strength of the LRA, children were kidnapped and recruited to become child soldiers. One Prosecution witness, who was himself abducted by the LRA, estimates that the majority of soldiers in Dominic Ongwen's group in 2003-2004 were children younger than 18;  and that 70% to 80% of those were between 13 and 15 years old.

Child soldiers underwent rudimentary military training and endured brutal disciplinary measures. They were regularly required to participate not only in murderous attacks on civilian camps, but in individual acts of torture and murder designed to convince them that there could be no acceptance back into civilian society.

While the Rome Statute recognises the age of 15 as being the threshold for the offences of conscription and use of child soldiers, the evidence in this case makes it plain that Dominic Ongwen bears responsibility for crimes committed against children far younger than this. One of the witnesses on whom the Prosecution relies, himself only nine years old when he was abducted during the attack on Odek IDP camp by troops under Dominic Ongwen's command, described children as young as six receiving military training in Ongwen's brigade. He noticed that they were so small that the muzzles of their AK47 rifles dragged on the ground as they carried the guns on their shoulders.

Photographs of some of the Prosecution witnesses were taken soon after they escaped from Dominic Ongwen's Sinia brigade. Protection of the witnesses' identity prevent their being shown in public, but for those in the courtroom the obvious youth of these witnesses, at a time when many had already been with the LRA for a number of years, is shocking.

The LRA leader, Joseph Kony, viewed children as easily moulded into the ruthless fighters that he needed to continue his policy of murder and persecution. Thus Kony and other senior LRA commanders, Dominic Ongwen among them, created the horrific spectacle of the perpetrators of these dreadful crimes very often being children who had, a few years or even months earlier, themselves been victims.

In what may seem an astonishing display of confidence, Joseph Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti took part in a radio phone-in programme, broadcast on the Mega FM radio station based in Gulu in December 2002. Kony spoke about his policy of child abduction to feed the ranks of his fighters.  Kony knew that the abduction of children was a sensitive point: whatever his grand claims about fighting for freedom and democracy, he was plainly embarrassed. He knew that using small boys as soldiers was unjustifiable.  At first he purported to deny the abduction of children by the LRA.  But in the next breath he conceded, "[T]hat's the way we recruit."  He continued, as if it might be some excuse, "[T]his is the same way Museveni was doing it when he was in the bush, by abducting." This was the policy that Dominic Ongwen was carrying out when he conscripted children under 15 into his brigade, and when he used them to participate in hostilities.

Abductions by the LRA also served a second plan. This involved the abduction of girls and young women with the express aim of forcing them to act as the wives and sex slaves of LRA commanders and fighters.

Again, there was no secrecy about the LRA's activities in this regard. Vincent Otti's words, in the radio program broadcast in December 2002 to which I have already made reference, were clear.  He said, "I want to assure you that the girls whom we collect and send to the bush are our mothers."  He went on: "[…] We always collect the young ones who are not infected with HIV." The only reasonable interpretation of these words is that the LRA was implementing a policy of abducting young girls for sex.

These forced wives were given no choice. They were treated as spoils of war, awarded as prizes, without any more say in the matter than if they had been inanimate objects. When they hesitated or refused to accept the sexual advances of the man to whom they had been allotted, they were savagely and repeatedly beaten. If they were suspected of trying to escape, they would be caned or murdered.

They were held for months, and in many cases years, in sexual and domestic slavery, subject to repeated rape. Many of them became pregnant, without any choice in the matter, and some gave birth to numerous children who were themselves then brought  into the ranks of the LRA.

As a senior LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen benefited most from the misery of the abducted women and girls. Of his many, many forced wives, seven women have already given evidence about their personal experiences.

By way of example, the Prosecution witness with the pseudonym P-0227 has given evidence concerning her abduction. She told the Court that a little over a month after her abduction, Ongwen summoned her to his house. She was shaking with fear. He demanded sex, and she was not able to refuse. She felt that her "whole life was in his hand." He penetrated both her vagina and her anus with his penis, by force. To quieten her, when she wept and screamed, he threatened her with his bayonet.

After the rape, Ongwen and everyone else around her, considered this witness to be his wife. She could not escape. When she was thought to have attempted to do so, she was brutally beaten.  On another occasion, Dominic Ongwen ordered that she be beaten for spending time at another LRA fighter's house.  She saw the results of Ongwen's suspicions concerning another woman whom he had taken in forced marriage. Believing her to have shown interest in another man, he ordered the child soldiers who served as his escorts to punish her with one hundred strokes of the cane.

As a result of her rape by Dominic Ongwen, the witness gave birth to a son. This was not her choice. She felt that she was not ready to bear children. 

Another Prosecution witness, P-0101, who was 14 years old at the time of the crimes, gave a devastating insight into Dominic Ongwen's behaviour towards the young girls who were placed at his mercy. She spoke both from personal experience of her rape by Ongwen and from more general observation over a period of years. She told the Court that, "…you are raped while you're still young… Dominic was the worst when it came to young … girls … [H]e … has sex with them at a very young age."

But, of course, Dominic Ongwen's responsibility is far wider than simply for the crimes that he perpetrated himself. Within the Sinia brigade, Ongwen commanded structures through which the practice of abduction, forced marriage, rape, torture, slavery and sexual slavery was institutionalised. Hundreds of girls suffered these crimes at the hands of the LRA fighters to whom Dominic Ongwen distributed them.

Not only was the physical effect upon such girls and women devastating, but there was an enduring mental effect as well. For those who survived, even after their escape or release, they had to live; they still have to live, with the stigma of having been an LRA "wife", a perversion of the true meaning of that word.

Their future hopes of re-establishing themselves in society and creating new conjugal relationships, despite the efforts of a number of organisations which work to assist and empower them, are blighted. And there is a whole category of other victims: the children born in captivity resulting from these forced marriages, who sometimes face hostility and taunts as a result of their parentage.

I want to turn lastly to Dominic Ongwen himself. One aspect of this case is the fact that not only is Ongwen alleged to be the perpetrator of these crimes, he was also a victim. He himself, so he has told the Court, was abducted from his home by an earlier generation of LRA fighters, when he was fourteen years old. He himself, therefore, must have gone through the trauma of separation from his family, brutalisation by his captors and initiation into the violence of the LRA way of life. He has been presented as a victim, rather than a perpetrator.

People following the case against Dominic Ongwen may do so with mixed emotions. They will feel horror and revulsion at what he did, but they will also feel sympathy. The evidence of many of the child victims in this case could be, in other circumstances, the story of the accused himself.

The evidence makes it plain that he could be kind. One Prosecution witness has told the Court that generally Dominic Ongwen was a good man, who would play and joke with the boys under his command and was loved by everyone. But the same witness also told the Court that at a time when she believed she was still too young to get pregnant, Ongwen had forced her to have sex with him and that she knew she would be beaten if she refused. She also told the Court that she still bore the scars on her breasts from a beating Ongwen had given her when she failed to make his bed.

The reality is that cruel men can do kind things and kind men can be cruel. A hundred percent consistency is a rare thing. And the phenomenon of the perpetrator-victim is not restricted to international courts: it is a familiar one in all criminal jurisdictions. Fatherless children in bleak inner cities face brutal and involuntary initiation ordeals into gang life, before themselves taking on a criminal lifestyle. Child abusers consistently reveal that they have been abused themselves as children.

But having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification, nor an excuse to victimise others. Each human being must be considered to be endowed with moral responsibility for their actions. And the focus of the ICC's criminal process is not on the goodness or badness of the accused person, but on the criminal acts which he or she has committed. We are not here to deny that Mr. Ongwen was a victim in his youth. We will prove what he did, what he said, and the impact of those deeds on his many victims.

This Court will not decide his goodness or badness, nor whether he deserves sympathy, but whether he is guilty of the serious crimes committed as an adult, with which he stands charged.

Dominic Ongwen became one of the highest ranking commanders of the LRA. He did so by his enthusiastic adoption of the LRA's violent methods and through demonstrations that he could be more active and more brutal in his methods against the population of Northern Uganda than other LRA officers.

He was commended by Joseph Kony for the attacks his troops carried out on civilians. He was held up as an example to other, less active, LRA commanders.

As a senior commander, Dominic Ongwen had complete operational control over the soldiers under his command. He could, at any time, simply have ordered that his troops march to the nearest Ugandan army barracks, lay down their arms and surrender. Alternatively, he could have taken the course that so many of the personnel under his control took, and made an individual bid for freedom, by simply deserting. After all, as the commander, he did not have to fear the brutal canings or peremptory execution which he himself ordered for unsuccessful escapees. He was often separated by several days' or weeks' march from any higher LRA authority. Battalion commanders in his Sinia brigade did indeed escape during this time.

Between July 2002 and December 2005, the Amnesty Commission records show that over 9,000 LRA members surrendered and received amnesty. But Dominic Ongwen did not take that course. Instead he accepted the power and authority which came with his rank and his appointment. He planned and executed operations which brought misery and death to hundreds of ordinary people, and reported the results on the radio with excitement, not regret.

One of the log books used by the UPDF to record radio contact between LRA commanders contains a description of Dominic Ongwen announcing his intention in August 2004 of - and I quote directly: "…starting to kill civilians seriously. He said right now he has already deployed squads for atrocities and very soon p[eo]ple will hear it on the radio." (end quote)

Let me play to you short portions of a sound recording of an intercepted radio conversation between Vincent Otti, the LRA Deputy Chairman and Dominic Ongwen. Otti is asking Ongwen to finish his report on Odek, which he had begun earlier.

Despite the poor sound quality, what you have just heard is important for two reasons. Firstly it is a direct, first-hand confession by Dominic Ongwen. He can be heard admitting to the mass murder of civilians. Second, it demonstrates that, while Ongwen has no inhibitions about stating that he has killed people, he is still uncomfortable with the fact that these people are civilians even when speaking to other members of the LRA. He knows that what he has done is wrong. He does not want to use the word openly. And so twice he avoids it, the first time calling his dead civilian victims "our colleagues" and the second time, using the standard LRA jargon word: "waya." The word means aunt, in Acholi, but it was LRA slang for civilians.  I will play the clips again now, pausing after each one.

Ongwen tells Otti that he has "just been shooting our colleagues."

Otti cannot hear clearly. The sound quality is bad. He says: "Just what."

Ongwen repeats: "I have just come from shooting people."

A little later in the same conversation, the subject matter comes back to these people who have been shot. Were these soldiers that Dominic Ongwen had been shooting? No.

Ongwen boasts to Otti: "Let the people wait to hear about the waya [civilians], we have shot all of them."

The evidence shows that Dominic Ongwen was a murderer and a rapist. It shows that he commanded attacks which destroyed innocent civilians' livelihoods.  He presided over a systematic use of child soldiers and sex crimes on young girls in the units he commanded.

The circumstances in which he himself was abducted and conscripted into the LRA many years before may perhaps amount to some mitigation of sentence in the event that he is convicted of these crimes. They cannot begin to amount to a defence, or a reason not to hold him to account for the choice that he made; the choice to embrace the murderous violence used by the LRA and to make it the hallmark of operations carried out by his soldiers.

Your Honours,

The victims of Mr Ongwen's brutal crimes have waited too long to see justice done. It is past time we deliver to them what they are owed.  On the strength of the Prosecution's case and the evidence that will be presented during the course of this trial, we hope to do just that. I thank you for your attention.

Source : Office of the Prosecutor