A commander in warlord Joseph Kony’s feared militia made his first appearance before an International Criminal Court judge Monday, calling himself a former soldier who was abducted and “taken to the bush” when he was just 14.
Dominic Ongwen appeared in court for a brief hearing to confirm his identity and that he understood the charges against him. He was not required to enter a plea.
Ongwen arrived in The Hague last week after being taken into custody in Central African Republic earlier this month. He faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, pillage and enslavement for his alleged role in a reign of terror by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army that has spanned more than 25 years in central Africa’s Great Lakes region.
When Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova asked Ongwen about his identity, he replied through an interpreter: “I would like to thank God for creating heaven and earth together with everybody on this earth.”
Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and checked tie, Ongwen looked nervous as he told Trendafilova his date of birth was 1975 and then added, “I was abducted in 1988 and taken to the bush when I was 14 years old.”
Asked to give his profession, he said he was unemployed, but, “Prior to my arrival at the court, I was a soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army.”
Ongwen was one of five LRA commanders indicted by the ICC in 2005. Three others have since died, according to the Ugandan army. Kony is the only one who remains at large.
Trendafilova set Aug. 24 as the date for a hearing at which judges will assess prosecutors’ evidence and decide if it is strong enough to merit a full trial.
Victor Ochen, director of a group called the African Youth Initiative Network, was in the court’s public gallery to watch Ongwen’s appearance and said his status as a former child soldier should not overshadow Ongwen’s acts as a senior commander in a group notorious for sexual enslavement, mutilations and kidnapping tens of thousands of victims.
Ochen said his brother Geoffrey was abducted by Ongwen’s forces in 2003 and he has not been heard from since. Ochen said Ongwen’s forces were responsible for abducting at least 10,000 people and he had many chances during his time with Kony’s forces to turn himself in.
“Ongwen’s time for amnesty is long gone,” he said, adding that prisoners who managed to flee, “came back with testimonies … about how brutal Ongwen was to other children who tried to escape.”
He added: “I am happy that, finally, justice is being done.”