Uganda: Local Leader Says Ongwen Was Not Among LRA Commanders Active in Teso Region

Dominic Ongwen (center)

A Ugandan member of parliament told the International Criminal Court (ICC) that former abductees of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) he spoke to did not name Dominic Ongwen as one of the LRA commanders active in the eastern Uganda region of Teso 15 years ago.

Julius Ochen told the court on Monday that in 2003 he was chairman of a local government unit in Amuria district in the wider Teso region, and children who had been abducted and escaped the LRA did not name Ongwen as one of the commanders they saw. Ochen is the member of parliament representing Kapalebyong.

Ochen said the former abductees named Vincent Otti and Charles Tabu Ley as among the LRA commanders they knew of. Otti was LRA deputy leader at the time. Tabu Ley was the LRA division commander.

The trial of Ongwen resumed on Monday after an almost three-week break. The last hearing was on March 5.

During the prosecution phase of the trial of Ongwen, the court heard evidence of LRA attacks in Teso despite the region being outside the geographical scope of the charges against Ongwen. The defense has objected many times when witnesses spoke about LRA activities in Teso with the prosecution countering that the evidence was relevant because it provided context to the charges against Ongwen. Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt ruled those witnesses could give their testimony, but he also repeatedly assured the defense that Trial Chamber IX will assess the value of the evidence they have received when they make their judgement.

Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred in northern Uganda, which neighbors the eastern region of Teso. Ongwen is alleged to have committed these crimes between July 2002 and December 2005 when he was an LRA commander. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

On Monday, Ochen told the court that when the LRA was active in the Teso, they abducted a cultural leader and people in Teso complained about that abduction. Ochen said the LRA did not know they had abducted a cultural leader and when they confirmed one of the abductees was a cultural leader they released him with a letter.

"That is when we got to know the actual truth of the leader of [the group that abducted the cultural leader was] Charles Tabu Ley. That is when they got to know that Vincent Otti was around and leading another group," said Ochen.

"You said those who were abducted and you had an opportunity to talk to ... and they talked about the people they saw ... Was Dominic Ongwen one of them [LRA commanders] they said they saw?" asked Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen's lead lawyer.

"I think the information that we collected from those who were abducted, I think they likely spoke about Charles Tabu Ley, Vincent Otti, and the late commander Opiyo. Dominic Ongwen's name was very silent," replied Ochen.

Later on Monday, senior trial lawyer Benjamin Gumpert cross-examined Ochen on behalf of the prosecution and asked him about the abductees he talked to some 15 years ago.

"Have you yourself spoken to child abductees?" asked Gumpert.

"Mr. President, the answer I give is yes," replied Ochen.

"So, you will personally have heard the account of possibly hundreds of abductees?" asked Gumpert.

"I have met them. I have been with them. I have attended burials," answered Ochen.

Gumpert pressed Ochen further on the exact number of abductees he spoke to.

"I think the number that I have interacted or come across is quite a sizable number," replied Ochen. He went on to explain that he was not in a position to give an exact number. He also gave details of the different non-governmental agencies that were involved in helping abductees who had escaped from the LRA.

"I think the number [of abducted children] that I have interacted [with], it can't be less than 10 physically on the ground," Ochen said finally.

Odongo also asked Ochen about the time when Ongwen was mistakenly declared dead by the Ugandan government and the body displayed in public in Soroti, the main town of Teso, during the period the LRA was active in the region.

"Of course, as civilian population we were meant to take that as gospel truth," said Ochen. He said it later emerged that the body displayed in Soroti was not Ongwen's.

On October 5, 2005, the prosecution notified Pre-Trial Chamber II that the Ugandan army had informed them Ongwen had been killed in combat the previous Sunday, October 2, 2005, and former LRA commanders had identified his body. Later the Ugandan government sought the assistance of the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) in getting further confirmation of the identity of the body. This led to an OTP team going to Uganda to collect DNA samples from the body that had been identified as Ongwen's and other DNA samples from Ongwen's relatives. These samples were taken to the Netherlands Forensic Institute, which determined that the body was not Ongwen's.

Other matters Ochen testified on included a court case he was involved in at the Ugandan High Court in which more than 2,000 Teso residents claimed compensation from the Ugandan government for life, livestock, and livelihood lost during the LRA conflict. He also testified about why Teso residents set up a militia group, called Arrow Boys, to protect them from the LRA and how this group was supported by the Ugandan army.

Ochen concluded his testimony on Monday. Alfred Arop testified on Tuesday and Thursday.

The transcript of Ochen's testimony can be found here.

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