Uganda is yet to decide whether to try Lord’s Resistance Army ‘Maj Gen’ Dominic Ongwen at home or refer him to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Ongwen, the LRA’s second in command, on Tuesday surrendered to Seleka rebels in Central African Republic who later handed him over to US special forces based there.
Together with LRA leader Joseph Kony, Ongwen and three others (Okot Odhiambo, Vincent Otti and Raska Lukwiya who have since died) were in 2005 indicted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ofwono Opondo, the government spokesman, told The Observer yesterday, that Ongwen had been handed over to the UPDF in CAR.
“The process is underway to have him extradited back to Uganda by the end of the week,” he said. Asked whether Ongwen would be granted amnesty, tried locally or referred to the ICC, Opondo said Uganda now has the institutional capacity to try him locally.
The Ugandan judiciary has a special war crimes division of the High court to try such cases.
The war crimes division was first charged with the trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, another former senior LRA commander, until the case was referred to the Constitutional court, which ruled that the suspect should benefit from amnesty like other former LRA combatants who surrendered.
The Amnesty Act was enacted in 2000 to formally pardon fighters who surrender and renounce rebellion. Opondo explained that the decision to put Ongwen on trial in Uganda or transfer him to the ICC shall be reached after consultation with Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic.
“The LRA have committed the same kind of crimes in DRC and CAR; so, those governments may also have interest in his trial,” he said.
He urged the LRA remnants to give up rebellion.
“The choice is theirs, if they surrender, they can benefit from amnesty, if they don’t, the military pursuit for them is on,” he said.
On whether Ongwen can benefit from amnesty, Opondo said no decision had been taken. In 2012, another senior LRA commander, Caesar Acellam, was captured in the jungles of the Central African Republic (CAR). However, to date he has neither been formally charged in court nor benefitted from amnesty.
The director of public Prosecutions argues that Acellam is not entitled to amnesty because he was captured, but Acellam’s lawyer Caleb Alaka argues that his client was captured on his way to surrender and so he is entitled to amnesty. Weighing in on the latest development in the fight against LRA, Invisible Children Inc said in a statement that Ongwen’s surrender reaffirms the rebel group’s declining capacity.
“…it is a significant and historic blow to Joseph Kony’s forces, it would also mean that in the last three years alone, four of the top LRA commanders have been removed from the battlefield, leaving Kony as the final ICC- indicted LRA leader to be captured,” the statement reads.
Who is Ongwen?
According to Invisible Children, Ongwen was born in 1980 and abducted by LRA at the age of 10 while on his way to school. He rose through the LRA ranks quickly, becoming a major at the age of 18 and a brigadier in his late 20s. After his abduction in 1980, Ongwen was placed in the ‘household’ of LRA commander Vincent Otti.
Ongwen grew close to Otti who eventually became Kony’s deputy before the rebel chief ordered his execution in October 2007.
LRA defectors report that Ongwen was the only commander who pleaded with Kony to spare Otti’s life, a move that weakened his influence within the LRA.