By Tom Maliti
A forensic psychiatrist told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that if Dominic Ongwen had a mental illness while he was in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) it would have been difficult for him to mask its symptoms from the people around him.
Gillian Clare Mezey told the court on Tuesday that based on material she reviewed her conclusion was Ongwen did not have a mental illness during the time he was a LRA commander between 2002 and 2005.
Ongwen, who disrupted Monday’s afternoon session and was removed from the court, was present in court on Tuesday. He did not make a statement as Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt had suggested the previous day, but Ongwen sat throughout Tuesday’s hearing without any further incident.
Mezey said the conclusion of a court-appointed psychiatrist that Ongwen masked a dissociative disorder he had was speculative because the doctor did not test that conclusion with Ongwen when he was examining him, and the testimony of LRA members about Ongwen did not refer to any symptoms of a dissociative disorder.
She said she agreed that Ongwen had suffered distress from time to time because he has been at the ICC detention center. Mezey said this was to be expected given the change in Ongwen’s circumstances, but his suffering distress did not mean he had a depressive disorder.
Ongwen is on trial for his alleged role in attacks on four camps for internally displaced people, sex crimes, and conscripting child soldiers between July 2002 and December 2005. He has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity and has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Mezey began testifying on Monday. She is one of three mental health experts the prosecution has called to testify about Ongwen’s mental state during the period of the charges against him.
“All the evidence points to Mr. Ongwen having control over his actions, being aware of what was happening. Being able to express a desire to act in certain ways. All of those features are incompatible with the presence of a serious mental disorder,” said Mezey while responding to a question from prosecutor Colin Black.
The documentation that Mezey was referring to was the reports of a court-appointed expert, Joop T. V. M. de Jong, and those of mental health experts the defense had hired to assess Ongwen’s mental state. Mezey also reviewed extracts of transcripts of prosecution witnesses who testified about their interactions with Ongwen while they were in the LRA. Mezey also listened to some audio recordings of LRA radio communication in which Ongwen is heard giving reports to his superiors and fellow commanders.
When Thomas Obhof, a lawyer representing Ongwen, questioned her, Mezey said de Jong described Ongwen as being friendly, relaxed, and talkative when de Jong met him. She said de Jong concluded that Ongwen was hiding a depressive disorder.
“That is a hypothesis and speculation on the part of Professor de Jong. I have not seen any evidence that he tried to test out this hypothesis with Mr. Ongwen,” said Mezey.
She added a little later, “Perhaps Professor de Jong could provide an explanation or motive as to why he feels that might be the case. In practice it is difficult for people to mask their symptoms because in severe mental illness people do not have control of their symptoms.”
On Monday, Mezey described depressive disorder as being “a persistent lowering of mood.” She gave some of its symptoms as an individual having disrupted sleep and becoming socially withdrawn. She said an individual might also have their thinking slow down as well as their speech. They may often express unreasonable feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and guilt.
Later Obhof asked if Ongwen’s belief in the spirit realm of the Acholi could be diagnosed as a form of mental illness. Mezey said such belief was not a mental illness, and it was irrelevant if others in the LRA shared such a belief.
“The only descriptions of him have been of a highly respected, somewhat feared commander within the LRA. Indeed, Mr. Ongwen refers to himself being a good shooter and a good fighter. … Yes, I would expect his comrades to pick up on that [symptoms of mental illness] and to have commented on it,” said Mezey.
Obhof asked Mezey about her work with battered women and to make comparisons with the LRA. Obhof asked about a question that comes up during court cases about why battered women did not just leave their abusive partners and whether the same question can be asked about of Ongwen given what Obhof described as “the extremely brutal regime” of the LRA.
“In fact, it is my understanding that Mr. Ongwen repeatedly tried to leave, certainly at the beginning … They [battered women] see escape as futile, but they also see their abuser as all-powerful,” said Mezey.
Mezey said that to make a comparison between battered women and Ongwen’s situation, “You would have to demonstrate that he deferred, that he was unable to act or take decisions to think for himself without the authority of [LRA leader] Joseph Kony.”
She said that in the material she was given there were examples of Ongwen standing up to Kony.
“It does not suggest to me that he is someone who is cowed to submission. It suggests to me he is someone who has autonomy and agency,” said Mezey.
Obhof then asked Mezey about an incident when Ongwen drank detergent in the detention center and whether that was something that a rational person would do.
Mezey said that Ongwen drank the detergent out of frustration at not being allowed a visit from an aunt. She said the act appeared reckless and ill thought but Ongwen was able to explain why he did what he did.
“An individual who seriously wanted to die would be indicative of a depressive disorder. For Mr. Ongwen, not only did he talk about the reason for the act because he was angry or upset by the lack of the visit, but he also recovered quickly from this act. You would expect to see ongoing suicidal acts, ongoing depression,” if he had a depressive disorder, said Mezey.
Later Mezey observed that in the LRA, “He [Ongwen] was not seen as fragile or unpredictable. He survived [the LRA], which I think would take a lot of psychological resilience in that organization.”
Mezey concluded her testimony on Tuesday. Judge Schmitt said the next witness is P-187, who will start testifying on Thursday.
This article was first published on the International Justice Monitor website.