Former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen will continue serving his 25-year prison term after the International Criminal Court dismissed his appeal against his conviction and sentencing.
The Appeals Chamber confirmed the sentence of 25 years imprisonment by the majority, rejected all the defence’s 90 grounds of appeal, and unanimously confirmed the conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Reading the summary of the judgment on December 15, 2022, Presiding Judge Luz del Carmen Ibáñez Carranza stated that the court recognises the “extreme suffering” endured by Ongwen’s victims.
She highlighted the complexity of the issues raised in the case, some of which she said were being addressed for the first time before the ICC. These include the assessment of grounds for excluding criminal responsibility and the interpretation of certain sexual and gender-based crimes.
Judge Ibáñez also pointed out that the case concerns an accused person who was abducted by the LRA at the age of nine years, trained and integrated as a fighter into the LRA ranks, and that his abduction as a young child and his early years spent in the adverse and extremely violent environment of the LRA brought to him great suffering.
The judges dismissed the defence’s allegations of violation of Ongwen’s right to a fair trial and other human rights, as well as its challenges to the trial chamber’s findings on his individual criminal responsibility as an indirect perpetrator and as an indirect co-perpetrator, setting out in this regard the parameters of these modes of liability.
They confirmed the trial chamber’s interpretation and factual findings concerning sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage as a form of other inhumane acts and the crime of forced pregnancy. The judges further confirmed the cumulative convictions entered by the court, noting that each provision that has a “materially distinct” element protects different legal interests.
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The chamber also concluded that the defence did not demonstrate any error in relation to the court’s findings rejecting the grounds for excluding criminal responsibility by way of mental disease or duress and confirmed the findings based on the expert opinions of mental health professionals.
Judge Ibáñez had a different opinion on Ongwen’s sentencing, stating that the court should have factored in Ongwen’s personal circumstances and reinstated the dignity that was taken away from him when he was a child, adding that this warranted a reduction of his sentence.
She stated that Ongwen’s condition as a victim did not cease when he turned 18 and that the court should have considered the violent indoctrination of a defenceless child and how it affected his brain and moral development.
On February 4, 2021, Trial Chamber IX convicted Ongwen of war crimes and crimes against humanity including attacks on civilians in the Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok camps for internally displaced persons in northern Uganda between July 1, 2002, and December 31, 2005.
On May 6, 2021, the court sentenced him to a total period of imprisonment of 25 years as a joint sentence after finding him guilty of 61 of the 70 counts of crimes against humanity (murder, enslavement, and other inhumane acts) and war crimes (murder, cruel treatment, attack against the civilian population, and pillaging) he had been accused of.
His then counsel, Krispus Ayena Odongo, appealed against the conviction and sentence and raised at least 90 grounds of appeal in his filing of May 21, 2021.
Ongwen was among five top LRA commanders indicted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The others are the elusive LRA leader Joseph Kony and Vincent Otti. The proceedings against Raska Lukwiya and Okot Odhiambo were terminated after confirmation of their deaths.
ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan has requested the court’s authorisation to hold a hearing in absentia on the confirmation of charges against Kony
Ongwen is a victim of the LRA, abducted when he was nine or 10 years old. He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming a battalion commander, then a senior commander in the Sinia Brigade. He had 700 soldiers under his command.
He is the first Ugandan and former LRA commander to be tried, convicted, and sentenced by the ICC. He was transferred to ICC custody on January 21, 2015.
The LRA started operating in 1987 in northern Uganda among the ethnic Acholi communities, which had suffered serious abuses at the hands of successive Ugandan regimes during the country’s turbulent history of the 1970s and 1980s. In its heyday, the LRA abducted and killed thousands of civilians in northern Uganda and mutilated many others by cutting off their lips, ears, noses, hands, and feet.
The United Nations estimates that more than 100,000 Ugandans were killed in the conflict, 60,000-100,000 children and adults were abducted as combatants to the conflict, and more than 2.5 million people were displaced from their homes in the central African region between 1987 and 2012.
In 2004, after many unsuccessful attempts to dislodge LRA both from Acholiland and the neighbouring states of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, the Ugandan government referred the situation in the northern region, on its territory, to the ICC to investigate crimes under the Rome Statute. The ICC issued arrest warrants against Kony and four other senior LRA leaders in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Summary of the judgments: https://www.icc-cpi.int/sites/default/files/2022-12/2022-12-15-ongwen-judgment-summary-eng.pdf
Judgment on the appeal of Dominic Ongwen against the decision of Trial Chamber IX of February 4, 2021 entitled “Trial Judgment” https://www.icc-cpi.int/court-record/icc-02/04-01/15-2022-red
Judgment on the appeal of Ongwen against the decision of Trial Chamber IX of May 6, 2021 entitled “Sentence” https://www.icc-cpi.int/court-record/icc-02/04-01/15-2023
Partly dissenting opinion of Judge Luz del Carmen Ibáñez Carranza https://www.icc-cpi.int/sites/default/files/RelatedRecords/CR2022_07151.PDF