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Ongwen's ICC trial resumes after a three-week break

Susan Kendi / 10 July 2017

 By Susan Kendi

On Monday, July 10, former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen returns to court at The Hague after a three-week recess for a fifth session of hearings.

https://www.facebook.com/JournalistsForJustice/videos/950503948421311/

The fourth session of the trial heard seven witnesses mainly dual witnesses, registered as victims and witnesses.

On June 21, 2017, prosecutors asked to add two items to their list of evidence: English and Acholi transcripts of a radio interview given by a prosecution witness.

The recording of the radio interview was on the prosecution’s list of evidence, and disclosed to Ongwen’s lawyers as soon as they were available, but they have asked that the request be rejected. Ongwen’s lawyers argue that the prosecution failed to explain why the new items were being introduced. The audiotape, they argue, and the comments made on it by the witness during his testimony are what is of significance.

Defence lawyers argue that they have been disadvantaged by the late disclosure of the materials, but the judges rejected their objection.

Dominic Ongwen was first charged with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity but after his surrender to rebels in the Central African Republic, ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced an additional 63 charges, bringing the total to 70.

Ongwen is facing charges of murder, abduction, displacement, rape, sexual slavery and forced marriage, among others.

Ongwen was abducted as a child by the LRA and quickly rose through the rebel group’s ranks to become commander of the Sinia Brigade, allegedly responsible for attacks in 2003 and 2004 that led to killings and displacement of thousands of people in camps for the displaced in Pajule, Abok, Odek and Lukodi.

Since the start of trial seven months ago, on January 17, 2017, 21 witnesses have testified. With the exception of culture expert Tim Allen of the London School of Economics and Acholi Chief, Rwot Oywak, all the other 19 have had their faces hidden and their voices distorted to prevent them from being identified. Lawyers have also been appointed to help them to avoid incriminating themselves.

Rwot Oywak testified about his abduction by the LRA and release as well as his role in peace talks between the rebels and the Ugandan government.

The trial has not been without its share of drama. On 1 February 2017, upon re-examination by the Prosecution and the Defence, the witness conceded that he was ‘confused’, while another told judges he had already said too much and was not certain of his safety once he returned home.

The fourth phase of the trial closed with Witness P-0252 winding up his testimony. The witness, testified on how his abduction, how he and other abductees from the Odek camp for the displaced were whipped after one abductee escaped; how he was ordered to beat an old man to death; and his life after leaving the Lord Resistance Army.

Throughout the trial, Ongwen has been sitting in the courtroom, dressed in a suit and with earphones, closely following the trial proceedings.

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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[1], to the Central African Republic[2] to Egypt[3] and Ethiopia[4], 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[5], Rwanda[6] and Niger[7] 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).[8] 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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