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Infamous warlord scorned 'choice to leave' LRA: court told

1 min 48Approximate reading time

Dominic Ongwen could have escaped the clutches of Uganda's notorious Lord's Resistance Army rebels, but instead chose to stay because the "work was too nice", his war crimes trial heard Wednesday.

On the second day of the trial at the International Criminal Court, a lawyer representing thousands of victims said Ongwen -- a former child-soldier-turned warlord -- scorned chances to leave the brutal rebel army led by Joseph Kony.

"Is Dominic Ongwen a victim or a criminal?" asked Francisco Cox, who represents some 2,600 out of more than 4,000 victims in the case before the court in The Hague.

Those communities affected by the LRA's reign of terror -- which lasted almost three decades and included murder, rape, pillage and the abduction of young children to serve as child soldiers or sex slaves -- knew the answer, said Cox.

They said Ongwen "may have been abducted as a child, but when he became an adult he had the choice to leave but he did not -- he found the 'work' too nice," Cox told the judges.

Victims' lawyer Paolina Massidda told the court that top LRA leaders like Ongwen often had the best pick of young girls which they then forcibly married and raped as part of a macabre reward system.

"Top commanders would describe the type of girl that they wanted including age, physical appearance and intelligence."

"If recent abductees matched these desired characteristics... they were collected and distributed to the commanders," she said.

At the opening of his trial on Tuesday, Ongwen denied 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the LRA's terror campaign mainly directed against unarmed civilians living in refugee camps.

"In the name of God, I deny all these charges in respect to the war in northern Uganda," Ongwen said.

He maintained he "was not the LRA", but "one of the people who had crimes committed" against them.

But Cox said: "The victims are seeking justice. Only when Ongwen is put before a legal process will people become aware of what happened to them and will he become an example," of the horrors they suffered."

A self-styled mystic and prophet, the elusive Kony launched a bloody rebellion against Kampala some three decades ago seeking to impose his own version of the Ten Commandments on northern Uganda.

The UN says it has slaughtered more than 100,000 people and abducted 60,000 children since it was set up in 1987.

The case has now adjourned until mid-January, and the trial, during which 74 witnesses including former child soldiers will be called, is likely to last several years.

The defence says it is considering several arguments including that Ongwen is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. His lawyers also maintain he was acting under duress.

Ongwen surrendered himself to US forces in 2015. But Kony remains at large with about 150 followers hiding out in the jungles of the Central African Republic.

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