Dominic Ongwen, Former Child Soldier and Commander of Lord’s Resistance Army, Convicted of War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

Dominic Ongwen, seated, a senior commander in the Ugandan rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army, at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2016. (Credit…Pool photo by Michael Kooren)

A former Ugandan rebel who was abducted as a child by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army and later rose to be a commander of the militia was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity on Thursday at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The defendant, Dominic Ongwen, was a 9-year-old on the way to his village school in the summer of 1988 when armed L.R.A. fighters grabbed him and spirited him off to their camp, where they whipped and threatened him and began training him to be a child soldier.

Now in his early 40s, he faces life in prison on charges including rape, forced marriages, torture, enslavement and multiple murders. His case has stirred debate among lawyers and international law experts, because the young Mr. Ongwen was a victim of some of the same crimes he would come to be accused of, including the recruitment of child soldiers under the age of 15.

But in their decision, the judges did not cite his childhood experiences as a mitigating factor.

His is the first trial of a top commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group that waged a violent campaign across Uganda and several neighboring countries from the late 1980s until recently. The case brought to light details about how the fighters brutalized and mutilated their perceived enemies. More than 4,000 victims were represented by lawyers as victims of Mr. Ongwen’s crimes in the case.

When the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, announced the verdict, he read out long list of cruelties that he said Mr. Ongwen had ordered.

“He gave instructions to loot food, abduct people, burn down the camp and the barracks,” Judge Schmitt said. “An old woman who could not carry her load was strangled and had her throat cut,” he added. “His men shot, beat and abducted civilians in the head and the face to make sure they were dead.”

Some children were enclosed in a bag and beaten to death, the judge said.

“A witness saw bodies hacked in a barbaric way,” he added. He also said the defendant had been described by his subordinates as an extremely skillful commander whom they loved to follow.

During the four-year trial, Mr. Ongwen’s lawyer argued his client suffered from mental disorders and confusion about his identity. He said that his client had been so brutalized when militia fighters turned him into “a fighting machine” that he never learned to distinguish right from wrong, and that made it more difficult for him to control his behavior.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Marlise Simons

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