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Dominic Ongwen, Former LRA commander sentenced to 25 years

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On the 6 May 2021, Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court (“ICC”)sentenced  Dominic Ongwen to 25 years in prison following the 4th February trial judgement  in which the Chamber found him guilty for a total of 61 crimes that included crimes against humanity and war crimes that were committed in Northern Uganda between the  1st of  July 2002 and the 31 of  December 2005. The period of his detention between 4 January 2015 and 6 May 2021, will be deducted from the total time of imprisonment imposed on him. The sentence may be appealed before the ICC Appeals Chamber by either party to the proceedings.

The presiding judge Bertram Schmitt,  in the chambers decision read highlighted that the Chamber was confronted in the present case with a unique situation. It is confronted with a perpetrator who wilfully and lucidly brought tremendous suffering upon his victims. However, it is also confronted with a perpetrator who himself had previously endured extreme suffering himself at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent member and leader.

The Chamber decided to give certain weight in mitigation to the circumstances of Dominic Ongwen’s childhood, his abduction by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) at a very young age and his early stay with the LRA.

The Chamber rejected the Defence’s arguments, recalling its analysis of evidence in the Judgment issued on 4 February 2021, and considered that the mitigating circumstances of substantially diminished mental capacity and duress are not applicable.

The Chamber also rejected the arguments of the Defence concerning traditional justice mechanisms, noting that there exists no possibility under the Statute to replace a term of imprisonment with traditional justice mechanisms, or to incorporate traditional justice mechanisms into the sentence in any other way. It also noted that Acholi traditional justice mechanisms are not in widespread use, to the extent that they would replace formal justice, and that they are reserved to members of the Acholi community, meaning that their use would mean that some victims belonging to other ethnic groups would be excluded. The Chamber emphasised that reconciliation, whatever its form, is a process in which victim participation is essential, and noted that it is clear that many victims of the crimes committed by Dominic Ongwen do not support the idea of traditional justice in the present case, and that they have also criticised the fact that submissions in this regard were made to the Chamber without consulting them.

The Chamber analysed one-by-one the gravity of each of the 61 crimes for which Dominic Ongwen was convicted, finding several aggravating circumstances applicable to some or even most crimes. Aggravating circumstances included particular cruelty, multiplicity of victims, the victims being particularly defenceless, and discrimination on political grounds and discrimination against women. The Chamber imposed individual sentences for each crime, taking the mitigating circumstance of Dominic Ongwen’s childhood and abduction by the LRA into due account. The highest individual sentences were of 20 years. Other sentences pronounced for individual crimes were of 14 or 8 years of imprisonment.

Dominic Ongwen born 1975 is a Ugandan former child soldier and former LRA commander.  He was abducted as a child by Uganda’s LRA rebels between the  7 and 14 years  old as he was walking to school in northern Uganda – going on over the next 27 years to become a ruthless rebel commander.

Ongwen – whose surname means “born at the time of the white ant” – went on to rise rapidly in rebel ranks, becoming a brigadier by his late 20s after winning the confidence of LRA leader Joseph Kony.

But he had a fractious relationship with the LRA warlord, managing to escape his clutches in 2015 when he surrendered – 10 years after he, Mr Kony and three other senior commanders had been indicted by the ICC.

They relate to attacks on four camps, guarded by the security forces, set up for those forced to flee their homes because of rebel raids. He was also convicted of charges relating to sexual slavery and conscripting and using children under the age of 15 in hostilities.

Claiming to fight for a biblical state, the LRA has killed more than 100,000 people and kidnapped more than 60,000 children during the three-decade long conflict which spread to several of Uganda’s neighbouring countries.

Ongwen, who had pleaded not guilty, said he should have been regarded as a victim too, telling the court: “I’m one of the people against whom the LRA committed atrocities.”

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