By Susan Kendi
Judges have adjourned the trial of former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Thomas Kwoyelo to November 5, 2018, to allow for the translation and interpretation of the charges facing him.
Kwoyelo, who rose to the rank of colonel in the LRA before his capture in 2009 by Ugandan People’s Defence Forces, has been in custody since. Kwoyelo’s trial has been marred by inordinate delays occasioned partly by government budgetary issues and a constitutional challenge on the question of amnesty. The latest adjournment has also reportedly been motivated by the need to give the prosecution more time to provide all evidence to enable the defence to prepare.
This decision was made after Kwoyelo’s lawyer, Dalton Opwonya told the three-judge bench of Justice Duncan Gaswaga, Michael Elubu and Jane Kiggundu that the accused did not fully understand the translated charges handed to him.
“Mr Kwoyelo, do you understand what is going on in this court?” asked Judge Gaswaga.
Speaking in his mother tongue, which was then translated to English, Kwoyelo told the court, “It is true we are Ormo but some of the Luo language such as Acholi has a lot dialect which I may not be able to understand.”
The court broke off for two hours to deliberate on the matter before Judge Elubu read the decision.
“For that reason, the Court finds that the accused has not been availed a proper translated copy of the indictment to enable him adequately respond and plead to the indictment.”
Opwonya has expressed dissatisfaction with the amendment to the charge sheet, saying that there have been many extra charges tacked on to the original indictment,
Here are some exchanges during the Kwoyelo trial:
Opwonya:This Court, being international, should see that he (Kwoyelo) takes breakfast, break tea, lunch and evening tea.
Police:He is only supposed to eat three meals a day. In the morning [at] 7 am, around midday he takes lunch, and then around 5 [he] takes supper.
Justice Gaswaga:We also understand that the prison authorities already have a list of who can visit the accused. In case they bring in food, then the authorities will know who to allow to give that food to the accused person.
After the trial, NTV Uganda conducted a short interview with Kwoyelo’s lawyer and the principal state attorney. Here are excerpts:
Dalton Opwonya:Today, if the charges were to be read again to him, it would be before he has understood them. So the Court was right to adjourn the matter to November 5, 2018.
Richard Kamuli (Principal State Attorney):We are going to reorganize ourselves to make sure that we have the resources to do the translation and when we come back, we will be able to continue with the trial.
On September 24, 2018, a group of concerned civil society organisations, including Victims’ Support Initiative, the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) and Avocats Sans Frontières (Uganda), have written an open letter to the Principal Judge,Justice Yorokamu Bamwine, asking him to take heed that “there is keen global interest in how the ICD will handle its very first war crimes trial.”
“While we recognize the financial and human resource challenges associated with holding a trial of this nature, we call upon you to consistently exercise your administrative mandate over the High Court by providing it with the necessary support and resources that would enable it deliver a fair, speedy and impartial trial in accordance with established international standards,” they wrote.
The organisations urged the International Crimes Division (ICD) to “provides a platform for victim participation so that their voices and interests can be heard during the trial. Participation in the trial is a step “towards recognizing the pain and suffering of the victims.”
Thomas Kwoyelo’s trial is the first national criminal trial where victims of the LRA conflict have the right and platform to share their experiences as victims and not necessarily as prosecution witnesses.
Kwoyelo was captured in 2009 by UPDF troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is the first rebel commander to be tried before the ICD in connection with the conflict between the LRA and the UPDF in northern Uganda for close to 30 years.
He is facing 93 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.