Arusha, January 21, 2015 (FH) – Ugandan rebel commander Dominic Ongwen was on Tuesday transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to face war crimes charges. Ugandan press reports say Ongwen, who was a child soldier, could be the first ICC suspect to confess.

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Ongwen was a top commander of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which has killed, maimed and abducted thousands of civilians in Uganda and neighbouring countries.  Now in his mid-thirties, Ongwen was captured by the LRA at age ten and given military training. He has been wanted by the ICC for nearly ten years.

US forces working with the African Union (AU) Regional Taskforce in the Central African Republic took custody of Ongwen on January 6. After negotiations, he was handed over to the AU taskforce on 14 January, and the ICC took legal custody of him in Bangui on January 17.

According to an ICC press release, Ongwen will receive a medical visit and “will appear, as soon as possible, before the Judges in the presence of a Defence Lawyer”. During the initial appearance hearing, the pre-trial judges will verify his identity and inform him of the charges against him.

The ICC arrest warrant for Ongwen was issued on July 8, 2005, for three three counts of crimes against humanity (murder; enslavement; inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering) and four counts of war crimes (murder; cruel treatment of civilians; intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population; pillaging). The crimes were allegedly committed in 2004 in northern Uganda.

“The transfer of Dominic Ongwen to the ICC is a major step for those affected by the LRA’s long history of crimes,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All eyes will now be on the ICC to deliver fair, meaningful justice that will resonate with the LRA’s victims.”

 “Judicial proceedings against Ongwen raise important issues regarding his status as a former child soldier, though the crimes he is charged with were committed as an adult,” Human Rights Watch also said. “Ongwen’s abduction was a war crime. He was denied parental care and spent formative years under the control of adults who used violence and extreme brutality as a form of discipline and punishment. These are mitigating factors that should be considered during possible sentencing in the event of trial and conviction, and could be relevant to his legal defense.”

According to Ugandan newspaper The Monitor, Ongwen could be ready to confess and has asked for forgiveness for his alleged crimes. “Each of us sin in words, deeds and thoughts,” it quoted him as saying in a recent interview. “Each of us sin in different ways. If I committed a crime through war, I am sorry. In my mind, I thought war was the best thing.”

The ICC is still seeking three other LRA commanders, including LRA leader Joseph Kony.