A former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militia notorious for thousands of abductions of women and children across Africa, has been found guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity – including, in a historic first, the crimes of forced marriage and forced pregnancy.
The verdict against Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court is being praised as a step forward for the ICC’s efforts to expand accountability for sexual and gender-based crimes. It is the first time anyone has been convicted of forced marriage as a crime against humanity.
The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) systematically abducted thousands of young women and girls, some as young as 10, and forced them to become “bush wives” or domestic servants to LRA fighters, who often tortured or sexually abused them.
Mr. Ongwen, who was second only to the infamous Joseph Kony as a top LRA commander, is the first LRA leader to be convicted in The Hague. He was found guilty of crimes in northern Uganda from 2002 to 2005, but the cult-like LRA has also brutalized civilians for decades in South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.
Mr. Ongwen was also found guilty of crimes such as murder, attempted murder, torture, rape, pillaging and enslavement. He was convicted after a four-year trial in The Hague in which nearly 180 witnesses and experts were heard. More than 4,000 victims were granted standing in the case. A sentencing hearing will be held in mid-April, and Mr. Ongwen could face life in prison.
The presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, read out the names of many of the victims. “As a result of the sexual and physical violence … the abducted women and girls suffered severe, barely imaginable physical and mental pain,” he said in the ruling on Thursday.
Hundreds of people gathered around television sets in northern Uganda on Thursday to watch the judges deliver their ruling. In the courtroom in The Hague, Mr. Ongwen listened to the verdict calmly and showed no reaction.
It was the first case at the international court with such a broad range of charges involving sexual and gender-based violence. “Justice was served,” said a statement by the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, who has pledged to tackle these long-neglected crimes. “An important message was sent globally that perpetrators of atrocities must and will be held accountable.”
The verdict “is part of a positive progression in the creation of a strong body of law and jurisprudence on sexual violence at the international level,” said a statement by Melinda Reed, executive director of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice.
The court ruled that the LRA had abducted seven young women and forced them to become “wives” or “servants” of Mr. Ongwen. He kept them under heavy guard under threat of death, beat all of them and raped most of them.
Mr. Ongwen forced one of his abducted “wives” to beat a captured soldier to death. “She had blood splattered on her clothes,” the court said in a summary of its ruling. “She had never killed anyone before, and this was part of the reason given by Dominic Ongwen on why he selected her to do this. This experience caused her severe anguish.”
Mr. Ongwen himself was abducted by the LRA in 1987 at the age of around 9 and was forced to become a child soldier. The court said he experienced “much suffering” as a child, which might need to be considered in his sentencing. But the court rejected the argument that he might have been coerced into his crimes, which took place when he was an adult.
During the period of the crimes for which he was charged, Mr. Ongwen “made a steep rise in the hierarchy of the LRA” and became the commander of a brigade of several hundred soldiers, the court noted. The senior commander, Mr. Kony, praised him for “performing very well,” the ruling said.
The LRA was formed in 1987 as a rebel army, but became increasingly brutal against civilians, killing and mutilating thousands in Uganda and elsewhere. It abducted more than 30,000 boys and girls and forced them to become soldiers and sex slaves, according to estimates by Human Rights Watch.
The LRA still exists, although it has shrunk to less than 200 soldiers in remote corners of the Central African Republic or South Sudan. Mr. Kony is himself facing charges of war crimes, but has evaded capture for more than 15 years.
Human Rights Watch said the verdict was a major step for justice for LRA atrocities. “One LRA leader has at last been held to account at the ICC for the terrible abuses victims suffered,” Elise Keppler, associate director of HRW’s International Justice Program, said in a statement.
Seif Magango, deputy regional director for eastern Africa with Amnesty International, said the verdict should provide “a measure of redress for the 4,000 victims who participated in the case and who can now receive reparations for their suffering.”
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