By Tom Maliti, IJ Monitor
A former intelligence officer of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that Dominic Ongwen led one of the groups that attacked the Pajule camp for internally displaced people (IDP) 13 years ago.
Witness P-144 told the court that the LRA attacked the Pajule IDP camp in October 2003 using three different groups of fighters. He said he was in the group that attacked the barracks, and Ongwen led the group that went to abduct civilians and loot the Pajule trading centre. Witness P-144 said a senior commander, Raska Lukwiya, had operational command over the three groups.
The witness testified on Tuesday and Wednesday in the trial of Ongwen, a former LRA commander. Ongwen has been charged with 10 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attack on Pajule. He has been charged with further counts for his alleged responsibility in attacks on three other IDP camps: Abok, Lukodi, and Odek. He has also been charged with committing sexual and gender based crimes. In total, Ongwen faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
On Tuesday, Witness P-144 told the court that ahead of the attack on Pajule commanders and fighters from two brigades of the LRA gathered some distance away from Pajule. He said the brigades that gathered were Trinkle and Control Altar, which is what the LRA headquarters was called. The witness said he worked at Control Altar.
Witness P-144 told the court the highest-ranking commander at the gathering, or RV (for rendezvous) as the meetings are referred to in the LRA, was Vincent Otti, who was the rebel group’s deputy leader. He said at this gathering, the fighters and commanders were split into five groups. One of the groups, including Otti, remained at the gathering point. The others went to attack Pajule.
The witness said that other than the groups assigned to attack the barracks and trading centre, a third group was assigned to lay ambush on the main road leading to Pajule in case Uganda military reinforcements were called in once the attack began. He said a fourth group of about 10 to 11 fighters led by a Captain Onyee was assigned to attack missionaries living in Pajule, but they failed to do so.
On Tuesday, trial lawyer Kamran Choudhry asked Witness P-144 questions about Ongwen’s unit and rank at the time of the Pajule attack.
“And at the time of the Pajule attack what unit was Dominic Ongwen attached to?” asked Choudhry.
“If I can recall, Dominic [Ongwen] was in Control Altar at the headquarters. I didn’t understand that well. I was told that it was a kind of detention or imprisonment. Well, I didn’t understand why he was taken there,” replied the witness.
Choudhry asked the witness whether Ongwen was still with Sinia Brigade when he was taken to Control Altar. Witness P-144 said that he was not. According to the prosecution’s pre-trial brief and the testimony of several witnesses, Ongwen served as a battalion commander and later commander of Sinia Brigade.
Witness P-144 told the court that when someone is taken to Control Altar for disciplinary reasons, they are relieved of their position.
“When an LRA fighter is in detention, is he or she free to move?” asked Choudhry.
“Yes. You’ll be free to move wherever you want, but if you were the commanding officer of a unit, you will removed from that position. Sometimes you will be transferred to another unit, but that all depended on how and why you were taken to Control Altar,” Witness P-144 replied.
“And at the time Dominic Ongwen was given a role during the Pajule attack, was he still in detention?” continued Choudhry.
“I think he was no longer in detention. This is because if you were in detention, they would not give you the task to go and carry out an operation,” the witness answered.
“What rank was Dominic Ongwen at the time of the Pajule attack?” asked Choudhry.
“A major,” answered Witness P-144.
“And can you remember what was the state of Dominic’s health at the time of the Pajule attack?” Choudhry asked.
“From the time I was abducted to join the LRA, I saw Dominic walking with a limp until I left the LRA,” the witness replied.
Witness P-144 told the court that the attack on Pajule occurred on Uhuru Day, or Uganda’s Independence Day, which falls on October 9. Other witnesses who have testified about the attack have said it occurred the following day, on October 10, 2003.
Earlier on Tuesday, Witness P-144 told the court the LRA abducted him at night from the dormitory he was sleeping in with more than 50 other high school students. He said this abduction occurred on April 22, 1996, when he was 17 years old. He said soon after they were abducted they trekked to Sudan where they waited for some days to allow their feet to heal before they began training.
“You told us that your feet healed. Can you explain, how did your feet get injured?” asked Choudhry.
“It was because of the long distance walking in the bush without shoes, stepping on thorns,” answered the witness. “When we were taken to the new base most of the new recruits had wounds on their feet.”
Witness P-144 said after the training, he worked as a clerk under the supervision of the LRA director of logistics. He said his role was to record all arms, equipment, and rations that the LRA received. He told the court this is how he knew that most of the arms the LRA had came from Sudan. He said the director of logistics was based at Control Altar. The witness said he later trained to be an intelligence officer, and he remained based at Control Altar.
Once Choudhry finished asking Witness P-144 questions, Orchlon Narangtsetseg, a lawyer with the ICC Office of Public Counsel for Victims questioned the witness. Narangtsetseg represents one group of victims in the Ongwen trial.
“Could you tell us the impact of your abduction on yourself and also on your family?” asked Narangtsetseg.
“When we were abducted from the school I was studying, I was in school and I lost everything that was in school … I am the only boy in my family, and my father suffered a lot after realizing that his only son had been abducted. He tried to move and follow the rebels. He went up to Juba [in then Sudan, now South Sudan] to find a way of rescuing me,” the witness answered.
Witness P-144 said his father went to Juba months after his abduction in April 1996 with a group of parents whose daughters had been abducted from a school in Aboke in northern Uganda. The LRA abducted the girls months after Witness P-144 and his schoolmates were taken.
“When he realized he was not able to rescue me, he got sick, and he died,” the witness said of his father.
Charles Taku, one of Ongwen’s defence lawyers, questioned Witness P-144 on Tuesday afternoon and for two sessions on Wednesday.
Taku asked the witness about his interviews with prosecution investigators. He also asked him about the departments in Control Altar and the people who oversaw those departments. Taku also asked the witness about whether or not the LRA leader Joseph Kony had total command over the group and what the group’s policy was on abductions and looting food.
At one point Taku put a proposition to Witness P-144 on why Ongwen was detained at Control Altar. He told the witness that Ongwen said he was detained on the orders of Kony after Kony got to know Ongwen was in contact with General Salim Saleh, who was in the Uganda People’s Defense Force. Taku said Ongwen received army uniforms, a mobile phone, and 10 million Ugandan shillings from Saleh, who is also President Yoweri Museveni, to help him escape from the LRA.
Taku said Kony “immediately knew about that and ordered a standby to execute him [Ongwen] but then changed his mind and ordered Otti to detain [Ongwen] at Control Altar.” A standby in LRA jargon refers to a group of fighters selected for a specific task.
“Did you get to hear about that,” asked Taku.
“No. This is my first time hearing this,” the witness answered.
The link between Ongwen and Saleh, who is a half-brother of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, is an issue the defence has asked several prosecution witnesses about. Some have said they knew about the mobile phone or the money, but none have said they knew Ongwen was in touch with Saleh.
Taku concluded questioning Witness P-144 on Wednesday. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said the next witness, P-054, will begin testifying on Friday.
By Terry Jeff Odhiambo
Gambia stands as a testament to the glacial progress Africa is making in the sphere of human rights. With the country on the mend and efforts under way to bring former President Yahya Jammeh to justice, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights could scarcely have found a better host country to hold its 30th anniversary.
The celebrations in Banjul, between November 1 and 4, 2017, come at a time of hope and restoration for the Gambia after the end of Jammeh’s 22-year dictatorial regime. Jammeh’s government was notorious for its disregard of international human rights norms despite ironically hosting the ACHPR. Arbitrary arrests, threats, enforced disappearances and torture were commonplace. There is still plenty of room for improvement. Attorney General Abubacarr Tambadou, who is also Justice Minister, told the opening of the 35th Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR that notwithstanding the various strides made by nations in the application of human rights instruments, the full enjoyment of basic rights and freedoms since the adoption of the African Charter, continues to face challenges. The Justice minister reiterated that the new government of Gambia had reaffirmed its commitment to protecting human rights and to living up to its position as the human rights capital of Africa. As recently as September 2017 the Gambia, signed five international treaties on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, including the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which seeks to abolish abolition the death penalty. In the coming months, Gambia is committed to ratifying more human rights treaties, including the Convention against Torture, and adopting a new republican constitution within the shortest time possible and developing a system of justice that can look into past atrocities and sustain its democracy. The NGOs Forum, which is usually held on the margins of the ACHPR Ordinary Sessions, is a platform for fostering collaboration between civil society organisations on the one hand and the ACHPR on the other, with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights in Africa.
Human rights abuses in Africa are a sad reality. The tableau of human suffering on the continent is scar on humanity’s conscience. From South Sudan, to the Central African Republic to Egypt and Ethiopia, abuses are increasingly being witnessed more than ever before. As one of the bulwarks against this depressing trend, the work of the ACHPR since its inception calls for evaluation. The promise by states and governments to guarantee human dignity and rights – through almost universal endorsement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ever-increasing ratification of international human rights treaties – seems to have had little impact on the daily lives of millions of people in the region.
The sad reality is that the human rights situation in various African countries continues to deteriorate on the ACHPR’s watch. There has been an escalation of threats to the enjoyment of human rights on the continent, ranging from arbitrary arrests, infringement of freedom of association and assembly, police brutality and threats to human rights defenders.
Since the inception of the ACHPR, seven states have never reported on the situation of human rights to the commission. The states -- Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe, Somalia and South Sudan -- continue to witness some of gravest human rights violations on the continent. Twenty other states have three or more pending state reports -- including Gambia, while 16 other states have one or two pending state reports. Only nine states, namely Kenya, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Mauritius, Namibia, Niger and South Africa are up to date with their state reporting obligations. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Niger are set to report during the 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR. State reporting procedure is a stock taking that serves as a forum for constructive dialogue and enables the Commission to monitor implementation of the African Charter and identify challenges impeding the realisation of the objects of the African Charter.
Some of the critiques that the Commission has received over time include the failure to implement its findings, such as decisions on: individual communications, concluding observations on State reports, country and thematic resolutions, and recommendations made in relation to missions to countries.
The 61st Ordinary Session of the ACHPR will see the swearing in of new commissioners and the exit of those whose terms have ended. The ACHPR is composed of 11 Commissioners, who are “chosen from amongst African personalities of the highest reputation, known for their high morality, integrity, impartiality and competence in matters of human and peoples’ rights; particular consideration being given to persons having legal experience” (African Charter, Article 31). They are elected by the African Union Assembly from experts nominated by States parties to the Charter. The Commissioners serve in their personal capacity and are elected for a six-year renewable term.
The upcoming 30th Anniversary celebrations are an opportunity to reaffirm the values and enduring principles enshrined in the African Charter mobilize people around the continent, and take stock of human rights today in Africa.
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