A prosecution psychologist criticized how two defense mental health experts concluded Dominic Ongwen had a mental disorder between 2002 and 2005, saying he found their reports contradictory.
Roland Weierstall told the International Criminal Court (ICC) when he testified on Wednesday, April 11, and Thursday, April 12, there was no doubt that Ongwen suffered trauma between 2002 and 2005. These years cover the period during which the ICC prosecution alleges Ongwen to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Weierstall told the court Ongwen suffered trauma while he was a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) but that did not automatically mean he had a mental disorder.
He also said he doubted whether Ongwen had attempted to commit suicide eight times while he was in the LRA. Weierstall said this is what Ongwen told the defense mental health experts. He said from his experience patients who openly expressed suicidal thoughts succeeded in committing suicide, especially if they were not hospitalized and closely monitored.
Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The crimes Ongwen is alleged to have been involved in include attacking four camps for internally displaced people, sex crimes, and conscripting child soldiers. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead lawyer, has given notice that he may present the issue of Ongwen’s mental state between 2002 and 2005 as a defense against the charges he faces. This is allowed under Article 31(1)(a) of the ICC’s founding law, the Rome Statute. This provision lists how a mental disease or a mental defect may be grounds to consider a defendant is not criminally responsible for the crimes that individual has been charged with.
Weierstall is the last of three mental health experts the prosecution called to testify about Ongwen’s mental status between 2002 and 2005. He is currently a professor of psychology and psychotherapy at Germany’s Medical School Hamburg. One area he has specialized in is the mental health of former child soldiers, having done research on the issue in Rwanda and Uganda.
Like the other prosecution mental health experts, Weierstall was not able to speak directly to Ongwen because Ongwen declined his request for an interview. Weierstall wrote a report on Ongwen’s mental state between 2002 and 2005 based on material the prosecution provided him. This material included reports by the two defense mental health experts.
On Thursday, Odongo asked Weierstall why his report on Ongwen’s mental health depended heavily on the reports of the defense mental health experts. Weierstall said the defense mental health experts were able to interview Ongwen several times.
“That’s the reason I thought I don’t have to cite other material because who else should argue for your client? That’s why I mainly focused on these two reports,” said Weierstall.
His report was entered into evidence under Rule 68(3) of the ICC Rules of Procedure and Evidence. This provision requires that a witness not object to their statement or report being admitted into evidence. Weierstall told the court he did not object to his report being used as evidence. The provision also requires the witness be present in court and available to be questioned by lawyers and judges.
During his testimony, Weierstall criticized how the two defense mental health experts assessed Ongwen’s mental health and the conclusions they reached. On Wednesday, prosecutor Adesola Adeboyejo asked him what his overall view of the reports of the two defense mental health experts was. Weierstall described the reports as having “so many contradictions.”
“There is so much information missing and so many points that would have had to be discussed are not discussed. I think the application of the method and the conclusion reached … dubious is maybe a bit too hard; I think it is not justified,” said Weierstall.
On Thursday, Odongo questioned Weierstall further about his overall view of the reports of the two defense mental health experts. Weierstall responded that the reports “don’t prove, not at all, the claim you are making,” that Ongwen had a mental disease or defect between 2002 and 2005.
“I would have loved to work with the material [that showed Ongwen had a mental disorder between 2002 and 2005]. It’s just not there. Because the methodology used in these reports is sometimes non-professional in a way, I am sorry to say. Instead, I find so many evidence that speaks against mental disorders. If there was evidence this should have been clearly visible but it is not. I only find evidence against it [Ongwen having a mental disorder],” answered Weierstall.
Adeboyejo and Odongo also questioned Weierstall on Ongwen telling the defense mental health experts that he had attempted to commit suicide eight times while in the LRA.
“I am surprised to hear that Mr. Ongwen really reports eight suicide attempts because when you, usually when you have people suffering acute depression then I can be sure that when they leave the room [of the psychologist or psychiatrist] they will kill themselves. We have to try hard to prevent these people from committing suicide,” said Weierstall on Wednesday.
“If it is really true that Mr. Ongwen had the wish to die then it is really uncommon why he survived the eight attempts. It doesn’t match with the picture of a severely depressed individual,” said Weierstall.
He observed on Wednesday that the defense mental health experts had interviews with Ongwen that lasted an hour or more.
“When I do a clinical assessment with a severely depressed patient then after 10, 15 minutes my patient will be exhausted,” said Weierstall.
Odongo asked Weierstall follow-up questions on the issue of whether Ongwen was severely depressed and whether it was possible this could have made Ongwen suicidal.
Weierstall said in a situation where a patient had told him he wanted to commit suicide he would never leave the patient alone in the room, even to make a phone call “because I would fear he would kill himself.”
“This is the case when you are talking about severe suicidality. Severe suicidality means that you would have someone to take care of your patient, even in the hospital. I don’t doubt maybe there is some desperation [in Ongwen], but the risk that is outlined here [in the reports], this is something that I doubt,” said Weierstall.
On Wednesday, Weierstall made another observation about the conclusion the defense mental health experts reached that Ongwen was severely depressed between 2002 and 2005. He said that in their testimony before the ICC, some former LRA members described Ongwen as hard working while he was with the rebel group.
“They [severely depressed people] are not able at all to work and do a regular job. That’s why we need to offer psycho-social therapy to overcome these conditions. He [Ongwen] suffers the same symptoms [of severe depression] but doesn’t suffer the same impairment. This doesn’t match for me,” said Weierstall, referring to the reports of the two defense mental health experts.
On Thursday, Odongo asked Weierstall about Ongwen’s abduction and brutal initiation into the LRA and whether that had an effect on his mental state.
“With every perpetrator I have worked with in my life, all of them have faced bad things. Some more, some less. You can always establish a link between childhood experiences and the development they have made,” replied Weierstall.
“But then I ask if we are all victims, who bears the responsibility? I think that many people are facing serious incidents and many children face abuse and some develop mental illness and some do not develop mental illness. Some become perpetrators and some don’t,” continued Weierstall.
Odongo also asked what effect a severe injury, constant surveillance, and imprisonment could have had on Ongwen. Odongo referred to a gunshot wound Ongwen suffered in September 2002 that took him nearly a year to recover from. Odongo said soon after his recovery Ongwen was imprisoned, and even after that, he remained under surveillance for a long time.
“In your considered opinion, was it possible for such serious injury and awareness of such surveillance cause PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and depression?” asked Odongo.
“In general, everything is possible, which means it could have been that the physical injury could have caused a mental disorder, but then if we assume this then we would have to explain to me how this goes together. This is something if you have a convincing explanation but just because someone presents group data from research showing that there is a higher correlation, this is not sufficient to transfer it to the individual case. Alternative explanations have to be excluded,” replied Weierstall, again referring to the reports of defense mental health experts.
Odongo concluded his questioning of Weierstall on Thursday. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said this also concluded the prosecution’s presentation of its witnesses. Judge Schmitt said the trial would resume on May 1 when the legal team for one group of victims led by Joseph Akwenyu Manoba presents its first witness, V-1.
This article was first published on the International Justice Monitor website.