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Former Uganda Militia Leader Is Convicted of War Crimes

2021-02-04 11:56:17
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A former Ugandan rebel who was abducted as a child by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army and later rose to be a commander of the militia was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity on Thursday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The defendant, Dominic Ongwen, was a 9-year-old on the way to his village school in the summer of 1988 when armed L.R.A. fighters grabbed him and spirited him off to their camp, where he was beaten, threatened and trained as a child soldier.

Now in his 40s, he faces life in prison on charges including rape, forced marriages, torture, enslavement and multiple murders. His case has stirred debate among lawyers and international law experts, because the young Mr. Ongwen was a victim of some of the same crimes he was accused of.

His is the first trial of a top commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that waged a violent campaign across Uganda and several neighboring countries from the mid-1980s until just a few years ago. The case brought to light a wealth of details about how the fighters brutalized and mutilated their perceived enemies. More than 4,000 victims were recognized as “participants” in the case.

When the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, announced the verdict, he read out long list of cruelties that he said Mr. Ongwen had ordered.

“He gave instructions to loot food, abduct people, burn down the camp and the barracks,” Judge Schmitt said. “An old woman who could not carry her load was strangled and had her throat cut,” he added. “His men shot, beat and abducted civilians in the head and the face to make sure they were dead.”

Some children were enclosed in a bag and beaten to death, the judge said.

“A witness saw bodies hacked in a barbaric way,” he added, saying that the defendant had been described by his subordinates as an extremely skillful commander whom they loved to follow.

“He did not commit any crimes under duress,” the judge said.

During a four-year trial at the I.C.C., Mr. Ongwen’s lawyer argued that as a young boy, his client was so brutalized by militia fighters who turned him into “a fighting machine” that he never learned to distinguish right from wrong.

The prosecution countered that he never tried to escape his captors, unlike so many other boys and men. Instead, prosecutors said, he followed orders and relished his role, climbing the ranks to become one of the rebels’ top commanders.

He was accused of personally leading raids in which his brigade looted property and animals, burned homes and abducted adults and children to used as forced labor. Boys were trained as fighters and girls were exploited as sex slaves and domestic workers.

The verdict capped a trial in which scores of witnesses — both former soldiers and their victims — gave their versions of Mr. Ongwen’s role in the rebel army campaigns against thousands of villagers whom the militiamen saw as government supporters and enemies.

“This is a milestone for the victims of so much brutality,” Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch, who has long studied the rebel group, said before the verdict was delivered. “Justice is so hard to achieve. This is the first opportunity for people to see these notorious crimes recorded and judged before a court.”

The L.R.A.’s bloody rampages and its elusive leader, Joseph Kony, are notorious.

Mr. Ongwen’s fighting career lasted more than 25 years, but his trial focused on attacks on refugee camps in northern Uganda from 2002 to 2005 because prosecutors had the strongest evidence for those accusations.

The trial did not cover the group’s many subsequent attacks or its rampages through four other countries in East and Central Africa.

Thursday’s proceedings, streamed from the court, were eagerly awaited in viewing sites set up in northern Uganda, where many communities were affected by the fighting. Some groups have regularly followed the trial via special radio broadcasts.

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