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Ugandan rebel chief 'tip of the spear' of LRA, court told

2 min 30Approximate reading time

Lord's Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen was the "tip of the spear" of the group which sowed terror in northern Uganda, prosecutors told the International Criminal Court Thursday unveiling 70 war crimes charges against him.

"For well over a decade until his arrest in January 2015, Dominic Ongwen was one of the most senior commanders in the LRA," Prosecutor Benjamin Gumpert told the Hague-based court.

The notorious Ongwen "was the tip of the spear," Gumpert said of the brutal rebel movement led by fugitive chief Joseph Kony, who has evaded a years-long international manhunt.

Gruesome images of bodies of LRA victims, burned out huts and the abandoned corpses of children were shown on the opening day of a hearing during which prosecutors are seeking to convince ICC judges that the evidence is solid enough to put him in the dock.

The judges will then have to determine whether Ongwen should stand trial.

Ten of the charges against Ongwen were kept secret for "security reasons".

- Cannibalism -

Prosecutors allege that from 2002 to 2005, Ongwen "bears significant responsibility" for "terrifying attacks" in northern Uganda when civilians were treated by the rebel group as "the enemy".

"This was not just a civil war between people in uniform," Gumpert said, "the LRA attacked ordinary Ugandan citizens who wanted no more than to live their lives."

Dressed in a grey suit, lilac shirt and grey tie, Ongwen, who turned himself in to US special forces in January 2015, listened intently to the prosecutor.

But in a brief address to the court, he insisted that reading out the charges was "a waste of time".

Gumpert showed a video of bodies in a grave, saying the court would also see other evidence of the "ferocity" of the attacks by the LRA.

Ongwen, who is about 40 years old, ordered attacks and killings of civilians and the abduction and enslavement of children to be rebel soldiers, Gumpert said.

Witnesses said Ongwen ordered his hostages "at least on one occasion to kill, cook and eat civilians".

Prosecutors also played recorded intercepts of LRA radio communications, which they said would help judges "step into the mind" of Ongwen and other LRA commanders.

- Bloody rebellion -

A former child-soldier-turned-warlord, Ongwen, whose surname translates to "White Ant" in his native Acholi language, was Kony's one-time deputy.

The LRA is accused of slaughtering more than 100,000 people and abducting 60,000 children in its bloody rebellion against Kampala that began in 1986.

The prosecution is focusing on four attacks on camps housing people forced to flee from the LRA.

More than 130 people -- many of them children and babies -- died in these attacks and dozens of others were abducted, prosecutors said.

The LRA first emerged in northern Uganda in 1986, where it claimed to fight in the name of the Acholi ethnic group against the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

But over the years it has moved freely across porous regional borders, shifting from Uganda to sow terror in southern Sudan before heading into northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and finally crossing into southeastern Central African Republic in March 2008.

Combining religious mysticism with a bent for astute guerrilla tactics and bloodthirsty ruthlessness, Kony has turned scores of young girls into his personal sex slaves while claiming to be fighting to impose the Bible's Ten Commandments.

- 'Tragic case' -

Born in 1975, Ongwen was transferred to The Hague a year ago shortly after he unexpectedly surrendered to US special forces operating in the Central African Republic.

Experts believe Ongwen fled after falling out with Kony and almost being killed.

But rights groups say Ongwen was himself initially a victim -- abducted at 14 by the LRA as he was walking to school -- which may prove a mitigating factor in sentencing if he is found guilty at trial.

"The tragedy of this case is the fact that Dominic Ongwen was a perpetrator but also a victim," the prosecutor said.

"But this is no reason to expect that crimes can be committed with impunity," Gumpert said.

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