18 September 2008

Uganda: Local War Crimes Court Excludes UPDF From Trial

Kampala — The War Crimes Division of the High Court, which has been established along the lines of the International Criminal Court [ICC], will not try soldiers from the Uganda People's Defence Forces (UPDF) if they are accused of human rights abuses according to its new head Justice Akiiki-Kiiza.

Human rights advocates have long accused the Hague based ICC of focussing on only one side of the 22-year Northern Uganda conflict.

One issue cited by ICC critics is the appearance in London of the court's prosecutor Moreno Ocampo with President Yoweri Museveni to announce Uganda's referral of the Lords Resistance Army, whose leaders the court subsequently indicted.

According to Justice Kiiza, the local War Crimes Division is a creation of the Juba Peace Agreement between the government and leaders of the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) and therefore limited to what its delegates put in the accord which is yet to be signed by either party.

"The people we are going to try are already identified in the agreement, and the UPDF was left out," the judge said, adding that the Juba Peace deal restricts his court to prosecuting only those crimes mentioned in the ICC indictments.

Justice Akiki, however, said his court has proposed to the Uganda government to establish what victims of the war say.

"There have been concerns from rights bodies like the Amnesty International Justice Project that one section of the peace agreement - the Annex on Accountability and Reconciliation - offers too narrow a definition of the crimes that might be prosecuted under a future national judicial process," he said.

This, however, does not alter the mandate of the court itself.

While most institutions engaged in the conflict, they are in agreement that the LRA committed grave crimes including rape, mutilations, mass killings and abductions, documented violations by the UPDF have been brought forward as well but never independently investigated.

Most famously, the former UN Undersecretary for Children, Dr Olara Otunnu, accused the Ugandan government of "genocide" in the North, blaming it for forced displacements into camps in which conditions were so bad and accounted for most of the deaths during the conflict.

Justice Kiiza's comments made at a symposium on the ICC organised recently by the Uganda Coalition on the ICC drew mixed views.

Nwoya County MP Simon Oyet, a legislator from the war affected Gulu area, said the court must provide justice for all sides.

"My constituents feel that this will only hold one side (Kony) accountable, leaving some UPDF soldiers, known to have tortured and murdered hundreds of people in my region, go free," the legislator adding , "If justice is to prevail, then their scope (ICC) has to be extended to include the period before 2004,".

The War Crimes Court is being set up with help of donor funds and according to Akiiki-Kiiza, may feature non-Ugandan judges on its panel.

There are also concerns that a massive amnesty programme run by the government since 2000 has reduced the number of those who the court would have sought to prosecute. The government is encouraging low and high ranking LRA to defect - with the promise of amnesty, even today.

To date, Ugandan military personnel accused of abuses during the conflict face military tribunals, which rights groups say are themselves not transparent, offer no right of appeal, but can impose the death penalty.

The two parallel processes, war crimes courts for the rebels and field court martial's for the regular army, it is argued are not individually or collectively sufficient to deliver justice for the war's victims.

"There must be fair, credible prosecutions of the most serious crimes committed by both sides and sufficient penalties for those convicted," Mr Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch said recently.

However, President Museveni's government insists it does not have to send cases involving the army to the proposed special court, arguing that its court martial system is comprehensive and works well. "We have a strict military code and we have sentenced many UPDF members who have committed individual crimes to death," Army spokesman Paddy Ankunda said recently. "If any evidence is coming now, we as a government are willing to deal with it in the most severe way, which is the court martial system."

Mr David Matsanga, the LRA delegation head, said onSaturday that Joseph Kony is set to append his signature to the final peace document "anytime" but stressed that the rebels would neither disarm nor disband "until the International Criminal Court (ICC) warrants of arrest and some other issues within the agreement are resolved by the Joint Liaison Group."

He said Kony had agreed to host a select 20-member group, comprising seven religious and cultural leaders; with two aides, the seven LRA peace delegation members and two unnamed members of Parliament for a joint meeting with Dr Machar and UN special envoy Joachim Chissano on Wednesday (yesterday).

Religious leaders and some legislators want Kony and his commanders subjected to a traditional justice mechanism called Mato-Oput in Acholi.

This involves acceptance of guilt by the accused (Kony) and a public gesture of remorse, which is said would be reciprocated by the community through acceptance and forgiveness.

However, others argue that there cannot be peace without justice and that justice can only be attained when the perpetuators of human rights abuses are prosecuted in the court of laws.

Additional reporting by Angelo Izama

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