(Vatican Radio) The trial of a former child soldier turned commander in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army has resumed at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Dominic Ongwen who was allegedly abducted when he was 14 years old and went on to become one of the most feared commanders of the LRA, is pleading not guilty to 70 charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes for acts committed between 2002 and 2005.
His defense team is arguing that he himself is a victim of the militia that has, according to the UN, massacred 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children since its creation around 1987.
Isabelle Guitard is Director of Programmes at Child Soldiers International and explains to Linda Bordoni that Ongwen’s case presents particular challenges owing to his status as a former child soldier, which raises questions as to how he should be treated in judicial proceedings.
Guitard says that “Child Soldiers International” believes that Dominic Ongwen should not avoid all criminal responsibility simply because of his status as a former child soldier.
“We understand that his defense will probably try to exonerate him and he has pleaded ‘not guilty’, and indeed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court presents grounds for exclusion of criminal responsibility” she says.
She explains that this includes the argument of mental disease which refers to the mental state of the defendant whose ability to appreciate the lawfulness of his actions was potentially destroyed (by the trauma he experienced as a child soldier).
Guitard says there is also the argument of ‘duress’ according to which the defendant was potentially acting under threat of death or another serious threat and so was somewhat compelled to commit a serious act in self-defense.
She says Ongwen’s defense team has indeed indicated it may use some of these arguments, particularly the ‘duress’ argument but it is not known at this stage how they will run it.
“It is a very difficult defense to run, we think” she says.
She says that regarding the argument of mental disease psychiatric evaluation would be necessary and regarding the duress argument there is the requirement of proof that the defendant was not causing a greater harm than the one he was trying to avoid: “this is very difficult to prove”.
She says in the case of Mr. Ongwen who was an adult when he committed the crimes he is accused of.
“He was a very influential commander in the LRA and he is accused of very serious crimes: war crimes and crimes against humanity that he committed over a long period of time” she says.
Guitard says at Child Soldiers International the belief is that his victims, like any other victims, are entitled to justice and reparation like anyone else and that he should not be exonerated.
“We are not talking about punishment here, because he was a victim himself, however when it comes to the sentence, should he be found guilty and criminally responsible for these actions, it would only be fair to consider his former status as a victim as a mitigating circumstance in the determination of his sentence” she says.
Guitard says that at Child Soldiers International they believe that child soldiers should be able to benefit from a rehabilitation programme and be reintegrated in their communities if this is possible.
But she points out that Mr. Ongwen never left the LRA and was immediately indicted when he was arrested, and taken to The Hague.
What Guitard would like to see is that Ongwen’s victims are provided with significant reparation.
In a wider perspective, she says the trial is important on the international scene.
“Without this trial and without the ICC these crimes may never have been investigated because the Ugandan government was unable or unwilling to prosecute Mr. Ongwen or other LRA commanders, so because of these trials we are going to hear the stories of the victims of Mr. Ongwen, we are going to understand more about the behavior of the LRA and about the consequences of the actions in Ugandan society, and the victims may obtain reparation”.