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Former Child Soldier Denies War Crimes In Trial At International Criminal Court

Dominic Ongwen, a senior commander in the Lord's Resistance Army, enters the courtroom of the International Court in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday.
Peter Dejong

The Lord's Resistance Army committed horrifying crimes against civilians for almost three decades, killing thousands in northern Uganda and beyond its borders.

Now, the first-ever trial of an LRA commander has opened at the International Criminal Court. Dominic Ongwen, who was kidnapped when he was a boy and forced to become a child soldier, "pleaded not guilty to 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity — including murder and enslavement," as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

In court, he said: "In the name God, I deny all these charges," according to The Associated Press.

Here's more from Ofeibea:

"At age 10, Ongwen, nicknamed the White Ant, was captured and became a child fighter and then a commander in the feared LRA, which terrorized northern Uganda for years. Tens of thousands of girls and boys were abducted and forced to fight and become sex slaves and porters."

Ongwen's status as a former child soldier could be relevant to the legal proceedings; as Ofeibea reports, he told the ICC that "he's a victim and the Lord's Resistance Army rebel group's leader, Joseph Kony, should be facing war crimes charges." Kony remains at large.

Ongwen's mental state is also a factor. "On the eve of the trial, Ongwen and his lawyers claimed he did not properly understand the charges and called for psychological tests to establish if he was mentally fit to plead," according to the AP. "Judges ordered him to enter a plea anyway."

Ongwen "was the subject of a decade-long manhunt until he turned himself in last year, possibly because he feared being killed by his superior, Joseph Kony," as The New York Times reports.

The charges in this case are tied to atrocities committed in 2003 and 2004 in four displaced persons camps — "Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi — including murder, torture, enslavement, persecution, and pillage," according to Human Rights Watch.

The LRA is notorious for kidnapping girls and women and repeatedly raping them. "Prosecutors said seven women had given statements saying that Mr. Ongwen had raped them as young girls, one when she was 10 years old," according to the Times.

The trial is being watched closely in Uganda — the ICC has set up viewing sites and tweeted pictures of large gatherings watching today's court session. Thousands of victims are involved in this case.

Human Rights Watch called it "an important new chapter in holding the rebel group accountable for its brutal crimes in northern Uganda." The group has lost considerable power in recent years, and the Times reports that Kony's forces are reported to "have dwindled to 100 or so men."

The LRA's numbers have waned, as NPR's Gregory Warner has reported, in part because of Uganda's amnesty law:

"Amnesty means that no matter how many murders or mutilations those other rebels have committed, they can walk out of the forest back into civilization and not do a single day in jail. ... But because of Ongwen's ICC indictment, he doesn't qualify for amnesty."

As The Two-Way has reported, some African leaders have argued that the court disproportionately brings cases against Africans. In fact: "every person tried by the ICC since the treaty creating it was adopted in 1998 has been African."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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