8 March 2017

Uganda: Ongwen Trial - Defence Lawyer, Witness Spar

The trial in The Hague, the Netherlands, of ex-Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen turned dramatic last Friday when the lead defence lawyer and a prosecution witness sparred in court.

At the ongoing hearing at the International Criminal Court (ICC), Mr Krispus Ayena, the defence attorney, told the court it was "unacceptable" that he could not ask some questions because of the conduct of a prosecution witness.

Mr Ayena made the comment while cross-examining a Ugandan spy identified in court only as Witness P-003. The witness is a member of the Uganda People's Defense Force (UPDF) and intercepted LRA radio communications from 2002.

The charges

Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for alleged role in commanding raids on Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi internally-displaced people's (IDP) camps between 2003 and 2004.

It is alleged Ongwen planned, directed, or participated in the attacks in which, according to summary of evidence that prosecution presented at the start of the trial in December 2016, some people were burned alive or bludgeoned to death by relatives.

The former commander of the Sinai Brigade, the rebels' fiercest military formation, is charged with forcibly marrying seven women, who were girls at the time, and committing sexual crimes against them.

On Friday, Mr Ayena tried with limited success to have Witness P-003 answer a series of questions about the distances between several towns in northern Uganda. His questions were trying to get at why the UDPF did not intercept any radio communication on the planning of the attacks on the Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi IDP camps.

He began his cross-examination by asking the witness about the location of Abim. On Thursday, the defence laywer had referred to the witness's testimony or statement to prosecution investigators that he had intercepted information about an LRA plan to attack Abim and this helped the UPDF prevent that attack.

"Can you tell court about how far Abim is from Gulu?" asked Odongo, referring to the town where the witness worked when he was intercepting LRA radio communications.

"I did not study geography. I do not have instruments for measuring distances," replied Witness P-003. When Odongo told him he was not expected to know the precise distance but that he could give an estimate, the witness said he could not because he had never been to Abim.

"Is Abim further than Pajule?" Mr Ayena asked, referring to the distance of those towns from Gulu.

"You know very well. You know all these distances," the witness responded, indirectly referring to the fact that Mr Ayena hailed from northern Uganda and represented a constituency in that region when he as a Member of Parliament.

At this point, presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt interjected to caution the witness to answer the questions without comments to counsel.

"For me to be frightened away from asking certain questions because of the conduct of the witness is unacceptable," Mr Ayena said shortly after Judge Schmitt's intervention.

Witness P-003 maintained a rather uncooperative stance in answering questions until the defence lawyer abandoned his cross-examination.

At the start of Friday's hearing, Witness P-003 asked to be allowed to return to testify in the courtroom. The previous day, he had been moved to a separate room within the court premises and was testifying via video link from that room. Judge Schmitt asked the prosecution whether they had any objection. Trial lawyer Julien Elderfield said they did not.

Mr Ayena said he too had no objection before remembering to ask his client, Ongwen.

Judge Schmitt then addressed the question to Ongwen, who, after mumbling a few words, responded that "somebody who causes injury to me, I think, I should not sit with him in the same court".

Judge Schmitt interrupted him almost promptly.

"I want you to know that in this courtroom, we have to show respect to each other, and we respect the rules," the judge said before asking Ongwen to state whether he objected to the witness returning to testify in the courtroom.

Ongwen said: "I think for me I am not very comfortable now to share a place with a person who has killed my person."

Judge Schmitt and his fellow judges Peter Kovacs and Raul Pangalangan retreated to confer on this issue. When they returned, Judge Schmitt said that the witness had communicated that he would continue to testify from a separate room. At the end of Friday's hearing, Judge Schmitt observed that this week's hearing "will be remembered."

The trial resumed on Monday.

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