Former Ugandan child soldier turned rebel commander sentenced to 25 years at ICC

The International Criminal Court sentenced a Ugandan ex-child soldier who turned into a brutal rebel commander to 25 years in prison Thursday, with judges saying his own kidnapping as a schoolboy and history as a child soldier prevented him from being sentenced to life.

Dominic Ongwen was convicted in February of a total of 61 war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, forced marriage, forced pregnancy and the use of child soldiers as commander in the shadowy Lord’s Resistance Army. His lawyers have said they will appeal the conviction.

Judge Bertram Schmitt said judges had to weigh Ongwen’s cruelty and the victims’ wishes for justice against his own haunted past in reaching a verdict.

“The chamber is confronted with a unique situation in the current case. It is facing a perpetrator who has deliberately caused tremendous harm to its victims, ”said Schmitt.

“However, it is also confronted with a perpetrator who himself previously endured extreme suffering at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent member and leader.”

Wearing a face mask and headphones, Ongwen showed no emotion when he learned that the panel of three judges had imposed a sentence of five years longer than the 20 years that prosecutors had requested.

Ongwen’s lawyers have always portrayed him as a victim of the brutality of the LRA, which was traumatized after he was kidnapped as a 9-year-old schoolboy and turned into a child soldier in a violent uprising by the group.

But judges ruled in February that he had committed the crimes “as a fully responsible adult, as commander of the LRA from his mid to late twenties.”

Schmitt emphasized that Thursday, saying that Ongwen could have fled the LRA, was not always in a position of total subordination to its leader Joseph Kony and committed some of the crimes privately.

Ongwen has kidnapped children and women and ‘divided’ them among his fighters, the judge said.

“He also kept women and girls for his own household, and forced the youngest to be his domestics, while those deemed old enough were forced to be his so-called wives, obliged to have sex with him and bear his children, Schmitt added.

Ongwen is the first LRA commander to face trial in a global court, and his convictions for gender-based crimes are important to prosecutors willing to punish such atrocities.

Founded by Kony, himself a fugitive from the ICC, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda started as an uprising against the government. When the army expelled the group from Uganda in 2005, the rebels spread across parts of Central Africa.

Kony shot to international fame in 2012 when US advocacy group Invisible Children made a video highlighting the LRA’s crimes that went viral. By then the group had already been weakened by dropouts. The Ugandan army estimated in 2013 that the group numbered no more than a few hundred fighters.

Reports over the years have claimed that Kony was in hiding in Sudan’s Darfur region or in a remote corner of the Central African Republic, where LRA fighters continued to kill and kidnap during occasional raids on villages, and where Ongwen was arrested in 2015 .

Judges said Ongwen’s role in a litany of brutal crimes would have earned him a life sentence had it not been for his own childhood.

They said he was an intelligent child who could have grown up to be a valuable member of society had he not been kidnapped on the way to school.

“All of these possibilities, all of his positive potential, all of his hopes for a bright future came brutally to a halt the day he was kidnapped,” Schmitt said.


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