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.