Dominic Ongwen

LRA commander Dominic Ongwen at his confirmation of charges hearing in ICC courtroom I on 21 January 2016. © ICC-CPI
Charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Northern Uganda, the ICC trial of the alleged former Lord's Resistance Army commander opens on 6 December 2016. First LRA suspect before the ICC.
Country
Case status: 
Trial
Regions: 
Africa
Dominic Ongwen became the first Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) suspect to be transferred into ICC custody following his January 2015 surrender to United States troops in the Central African Republic. Charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Northern Uganda, the ICC trial of the alleged former Sinia Brigade commander of the LRA opens in The Hague on 6 December 2016.
Background: 

First LRA suspect in ICC custody
Dominic Ongwen became the first Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) suspect to be transferred into ICC custody following his January 2015 surrender to United States troops in the Central African Republic. A decade having already passed since the arrest warrants were issued against five LRA commanders, ICC judges separated Ongwen’s case from that against LRA leader Joseph Kony and the other LRA suspects.

Victim, perpetrator, or both?
Ongwen is the first former child abductee to face charges before the ICC. The LRA is alleged to have abducted some 30,000 children to take into its ranks. After being forced to undergo military training, the abductees were often forced to kill adults or other children who transgressed the LRA’s strict rules or who tried to escape.

While the ICC does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by individuals under 18, some observers consider abduction as potential grounds to mitigate a sentence in the event of conviction for crimes later committed as an adult or even as a possible legal defense during trial.
 

Charges: 

As the alleged former Sinia Brigade commander of the LRA, Dominic Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes allegedly committed against the Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok IDP camps in northern Uganda.

The July 2005 arrest warrant initially set out seven charges of crimes against humanity (murder, enslavement, and other inhumane acts) and war crimes (murder, cruel treatment, attack against the civilian population, and pillaging).

However, at Ongwen’s confirmation of charges hearing, the ICC prosecutor applied a new open-ended charging strategy, expanding charges from the original seven to 70. 19 newly introduced charges addressed the earlier absence of specific sexual and gender-based crimes (sgbc), including forced marriage, which is not explicitly mentioned in the Rome Statute but features as a recurring harmful consequence of armed conflict. Recruitment of child soldiers was also added. 

On 23 March 2016, Pre-Trial Chamber II confirmed all 70 charges.
 

Challenges: 

Legal aid system challenged 
While upholding some victims’ choice of two external legal representatives, Pre-Trial Chamber II decided in November 2015 to appoint the Office of the Public Counsel for Victims (OPCV) as the “common legal representative” for those who had not selected these two lawyers. The Chamber later added that the external lawyers did not qualify for ICC financial assistance as “counsel chosen by victims” rather than Court-appointed “common legal representatives.” With more than 1,400 of the 2,026 victims participating in the case represented by the external representatives, the decision prompted questions and concerns among victims’ communities, victims’ counsel, and civil society organizations. In particular, some questioned the decision's impact on future proceedings, raising the potential implication that victims would not be able to effectively choose their own representation without being deprived of any legal aid from the Court.  

Cooperation: Uganda acquiesces, ICC steps in for domestic tribunal
Under the complementarity principle, the ICC cannot try cases when national courts are competent and willing to do so. Uganda, following the establishment of its International Crimes Division (ICD) in 2008, indicated Ongwen should be tried domestically by the ICD. However, due to inadequate resources and questions surrounding the ICD’s jurisdiction over the crimes charged by the ICC, Uganda did not pursue the matter further.
 

Victims: 

4107 victims have been granted the right to participate in the proceedings. Over 2600 have selected representation by external counsel while the remaining participating victims will be represented by the OPCV.

Missed opportunity to better reach affected communities?
The ICC Presidency rejected a recommendation for the confirmation of charges hearing to be held in Lukodi due to financial and logistical reasons, including security. Some civil society groups expressed disappointment, noting that holding the hearing at the site of an alleged IDP camp massacre by the LRA would have been the first opportunity for victims to witness their alleged tormentor face justice. In July 2016, ICC judges noted similar security and resource concerns in their decision against holding the 6 December 2016 trial opening in Uganda.