A Ugandan warlord must be acquitted of war crimes because he himself was a brutalised former child victim of the Lord’s Resistance Army, defence lawyers told the International Criminal Court on Tuesday.
Dominic Ongwen, 43, faces 70 charges arising from a reign of terror in northern Uganda in the early 2000s as part of the sinister rebel LRA, led by its fugitive chief Joseph Kony.
“Dominic Ongwen was a victim rather than a perpetrator. Once a victim, always a victim,” his lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo told the court in The Hague.
“Children abducted by the LRA, the accused included, are used in the war in northern Uganda, and grew up in one of the most brutal environments ever before known to humanity.”
A self-styled mystic and prophet, Kony launched a bloody rebellion more than three decades ago seeking to impose his own version of the Ten Commandments in northern Uganda.
The United Nations says the LRA has slaughtered more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children since it was set up in the mid-1980s.
Prosecutors say Ongwen was a “ferocious” and “enthusiastic” senior LRA commander in charge of Kony’s infamous Sinai brigade, which among many crimes abducted young girls and women to serve as domestic workers and sex slaves.
At its opening in 2016 the trial saw a gruesome video depicting the aftermath of an LRA attack on a refugee camp, with images of disemboweled children and charred bodies of babies in shallow graves.
However the defence have argued that Ongwen is the first accused before the ICC to face the very same charges — war crimes and crimes against humanity — of which he is also a victim.
Ongwen himself was kidnapped at the age of nine and “spent nearly 27 years in the grip of the LRA” as a “slave”, his lawyer said.
“Once captured as a victim, the accused was indoctrinated and made to live by the strict edicts of the LRA based on spiritualism or die — period,” the lawyer said.
“He lost his true identity in the bush war and became an instrument of Joseph Kony… forced to watch violent rituals of people being tortured and killed,” he added.
He pointed out that Ongwen had himself surrendered to US special forces hunting Kony in the Central African Republic. He was transferred to the ICC shortly afterwards.
The lawyer added that the Ugandan government had not brought the case before the court in The Hague “with clean hands”.
“This being a political case, those who have testified for the prosecution case are well aware that they have to go back and live in a state that has every reason to hide their role in the atrocities on trial in this court.