By Tom Maliti
A member of Uganda’s military told the International Criminal Court (ICC) about his work in four towns in northern and eastern Uganda intercepting radio communications between commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
Witness P-339 told the court that he intercepted LRA radio communications for 16 years during which time he was based in Gulu, Acol Pii, Lira or Soroti. He said he was part of the interception operation of the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF), and he also trained other members of the UPDF to intercept LRA radio communications.
The witness testified on November 21 and November 22 during the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former LRA commander, about his interception work with the UPDF. Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in violations committed in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Witness P-339 told the court he began intercepting LRA radio communications for the UPDF in 1995 and continued until 2011. This suggests that the UPDF intercept operation began eight years earlier than what a previous prosecution witness had testified. In February, Witness P-003 estimated that the UPDF intercept operation began close to the time the Ugandan government referred the conflict in northern Uganda to the ICC, which was in 2003.
Witness P-339 said he worked as a signaller for about six years with the UPDF’s 22ndBattalion when in 1995 he was reassigned to work in Gulu, where the UPDF’s 4thDivision was headquartered. He said here he was trained how to intercept LRA radio communications, how to break LRA codes, and the routine the LRA followed in their communications.
Witness P-339 said after his training he began intercepting LRA radio communications using a Racal radio. He said the radio had a handset that he held to his ear as he wrote down notes in shorthand on foolscap. He said he would later write out in full and in capital letters his notes in a logbook, which he said was a notebook bought from a bookshop.
“What information did you include in the logbooks?” asked prosecutor Colin Black.
“There are different things that we record there [in the logbook] … Because the LRA always communicates … They [LRA commanders] need to know what is going, where they are going, the different positions of the LRA,” replied Witness P-339.
Black asked him whether he included in the logbooks information he may have received from sources such as public radio. Witness P-339 said he only wrote down what he intercepted.
“In the logbook did you just write down the coded language or did you write down what you understood after breaking the coded language?” asked Black.
“What we record in the logbook includes the broken codes. There are times you may understand the message they are talking about. When you have a problem, if you fail to break that code, you can put that same code so that if something happens you come back to that code later so that you realize that is the code that you failed to break,” answered Witness P-339.
He said once he finished writing the intercepted messages in the logbook, he then gave it to the division commander and the division intelligence officer to read.
“They read it and sometimes they ask your opinion because you are experienced in the communication of the LRA,” the witness said.
Witness P-339 said his orders were to burn the foolscaps on which he wrote his rough notes of the intercepts. He said he did this with the foolscaps wherever he intercepted LRA radio communications in Gulu, Acol Pii, Lira, and Soroti.
He said he was part of the intercept operation against the LRA in Gulu between 1995 and about 2001. He said when he joined the intercept operation in 1995, the LRA had its headquarters in Sudan.
Witness P-339 said in 2001 he was assigned to Acol Pii and intercepted LRA radio communications from there until 2003. He said Acol Pii was under the UPDF’s 4thDivision and he would send his logbooks to Gulu for the division commander and division intelligence officers to read.
He said when the LRA moved back to Uganda from its bases in Sudan in 2003, he was moved to the UPDF’s 3rd Division in Soroti where he continued to intercept LRA radio communications. Witness P-339 said in Soroti he used an Icom radio and he worked in a Land Rover vehicle that was also equipped with direction-finding equipment to locate LRA positions.
“In that vehicle they had set up everything like an office. There was a table and everything. If there was no attack, I would continue writing my things,” said Witness P-339.
“While you were in Soroti, if you filled up a logbook what was done with the logbook?” asked Black.
“I would keep the logbook. I would take it to the division commander, and if they finish reading I would move back to the field,” replied the witness.
He said in 2004 he was moved to Lira where he continued intercepting LRA radio communications. Witness P-339 said in 2005 he was then reassigned to Acol Pii, which he said became the new headquarters for tactical operations of the 5thDivision. He said he intercepted LRA radio communications in Acol Pii until 2011.
During the testimony of Witness P-339, Black asked him to explain the different codes that he knew the LRA used. The witness said the LRA sometimes used proverbs as a form of code. He said that they also used a code sheet they called TONFAS. Using one of the code sheets he managed to crack, Witness P-339 demonstrated how he would spell Black with it. TONFAS is the acronym for Time, Operator, Nicknames, Frequencies, Address, Security.
Thomas Obhof, one of Ongwen’s lawyers, also questioned Witness P-339. He asked him to listen to a recording of an intercept of LRA radio communications and make notes of what he heard, which Obhof wanted to compare with a transcript the defense commissioned. The judges adjourned the afternoon hearing of November 21 so that Witness P-339 could do this work.
When the hearing resumed on November 22, Obhof asked Witness P-339 further details about his routine when intercepting and recording LRA radio communications. Obhof also asked him questions about particular officers in the UPDF, both those he worked directly with and those who worked in other departments.
Witness P-339 concluded his testimony on November 22. Patrick Lumumba Nyero of the Uganda Police Force was the next to testify.