A feared Ugandan warlord declared his innocence on Tuesday as he became the first former child soldier to appear before the International Criminal Court, telling judges that his background made him just another of the militia’s victims.
Dominic Ongwen – a reported senior leader of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) – pleaded not guilty to all 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the opening day of his trial in The Hague, the Netherlands.
“I’m one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities,” he said.
The charges include murder, rape, torture, and sexual enslavement, and relate to atrocities allegedly committed between 2002 and 2005 in northern Uganda, including four attacks on camps for internally displaced people (IDP) in which hundreds were killed and abducted.
More than 4,100 victims of his alleged crimes are being represented in the case, which has been hailed by human rights groups as a critical step towards bringing the brutal cult, known for using mutilation as punishment, to justice.
Prosecutors allege Ongwen, known as “the White Ant,” was the commander of Sinia Brigade, one of the four divisions of the LRA, and a member of “Control Altar,” the central command structure which plotted the group’s military strategy.
Ongwen is also accused of having forced children to fight for the feared, cultlike militia, which has made widespread use of child soldiers throughout the three decades of its fight to establish biblical governance in Uganda.
Ongwen, now in his 40s, was one himself, having been abducted and forced to fight for the guerrilla army as a boy. His experiences as a child, coerced into committing atrocities against his will, now form a key part of his defense strategy in a case that raises complex questions about the criminal culpability of former child soldiers.
“It’s the first time the ICC has charged someone for some of the crimes that were inflicted against him in the first place,” says Ledio Cakaj, an LRA researcher and author of “When the Walking Defeats You: One Man’s Journey as Joseph Kony’s Bodyguard.”
Cakaj told VICE News that many former LRA child soldiers see themselves as victims. Some have benefited from an amnesty offered by Ugandan authorities for LRA members who left the group, and several have since expressed the view that Ongwen should also be forgiven his alleged crimes.
“They think he should not be prosecuted,” says Cakaj, explaining that in northern Uganda, a region where few communities had been left unscathed by LRA child abductions, there was a degree of sympathy for the former warlord.
“There’s been no unanimous condemnation of Ongwen and no unanimous call for forgiveness,” he said. “It’s been varied.”
Hannah Stoddard, director of advocacy and communications at War Child, a charity that runs rehabilitation programs for former child soldiers, said they can be severely affected by their experiences.
“If a child has been involved with an armed group from a young age, they will have a very different understanding of what we might perceive as right and wrong and the longer they are part of the group, the less there are other options available,” she told VICE News.
But Erica Bussey of Amnesty International, which has long called for Ongwen to face justice, said that while it was not a “cut and dried” issue, the former militant should clearly be tried for the “credible allegations” against him.
“It’s maybe not useful to see it as: ‘Is he a victim or is he a perpetrator?’ He clearly could be both,” she explained to VICE News.
The issue of duress, raised by Ongwen’s defense team, could be considered by the judges during the trial, or potentially taken into consideration as a mitigating factor were he convicted and sentenced.
Ongwen faces life in prison if convicted. He remains the only one of five senior LRA leaders indicted by the ICC 11 years ago to have been apprehended. The only other indicted commander still alive, LRA leader Kony remains at large, despite a 5 million dollar reward for information leading to his arrest.