Notorious former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court on Monday, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The initial hearing for the Ugandan child soldier-turned-warlord came days after he was transferred to The Hague-based court following his surprise surrender to US troops earlier this month.
Ongwen is the first leader of the brutal Ugandan rebel army led by the fugitive Joseph Kony to appear before the ICC, created to try the world’s worst crimes.
A calm, composed Ongwen wore a blue suit, white shirt and blue-and-grey plaid tie as he identified himself as born in Gulu in northern Uganda in 1975.
“I’d like to thank God for creating Heaven and Earth, together with everyone that’s on Earth,” Ongwen said.
“I was abducted in 1988 and I was taken to the bush when I was 14 years old,” he said in his Acholi language.
“Prior to my arrival at court I was a soldier in the LRA,” said Ongwen, sporting short hair rather than the trademark dreadlocks of his time as an LRA commander.
Known as the “White Ant”, Ongwen was one of the most senior commanders of the LRA, which is accused of killing more than 100,000 people and abducting some 60,000 children in a bloody rebellion that started in 1987.
He has been wanted for war crimes for almost a decade by the ICC, in its oldest-running case to date.
The United States had offered a $5-million (4.3-million-euro) reward for his capture.
Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova read Ongwen his rights and the charges were put to him, which included a deadly attack on a refugee camp in 2004.
Trendafilova set the date for Ongwen’s next appearance for August 24, when hearings will start to determine if he should face trial.
Ongwen will be asked to plead only at the start of a proper trial.
– Kony still at large –
Ongwen was a senior aide to LRA leader and warlord Kony, who is still at large and being pursued by regional troops and US special forces.
Ongwen’s surrender dealt a major blow to the LRA’s three-decade campaign across several central African nations.
Like Kony, Ongwen was wanted by ICC on charges that include murder, enslavement, inhumane acts and directing attacks against civilians.
His capture has been widely hailed by rights groups and the ICC’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who said it took the world “one step closer to ending the LRA’s reign of terror” in the restive African Great Lakes region.
“A picture of Ongwen in suit and tie — even though at The Hague — imprinted on a demobilisation leaflet which are then distributed to areas with LRA presence can be a great incentive to encourage defections,” said Washington-based independent researcher Ledio Cakaj, who has studied the LRA extensively.
Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a child while on his way to school and became a child soldier before rising through the ranks to become one of its top commanders.
Rights groups have said the fact Ongwen was initially himself a victim may be a mitigating factor, should he be found guilty and sentenced.
But Victor Ochen, a former refugee who spend two decades on the run from the LRA and today runs a youth network in northern Uganda, said the rebel army’s victims demanded justice.
“Those without noses, lips or faces wants Dominic Ongwen tried as a senior commander in the LRA, not as a former child soldier,” he told AFP.
Over the years the LRA has moved across the porous borders of the region, shifting from Uganda to sow terror in southern Sudan before moving to the northeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and finally crossing into the southeast of the Central African Republic in March 2008.
Combining religious mysticism with astute guerrilla tactics and bloodthirsty ruthlessness, Kony has turned scores of young girls into his sex slaves while claiming to be fighting to impose the Bible’s Ten Commandments.
Ongwen’s troops were notorious for punishment raids, slicing off the lips and ears of victims as grim calling cards.