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Ugandan Child Soldier-Turned-Rebel Commander Is Convicted Of War Crimes

Women in Lukodi, Uganda, celebrate after hearing on a radio that the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, found Dominic Ongwen guilty of war crimes, including a massacre in their village back in 2004.
Sumy Sadurni
AFP via Getty Images
Women in Lukodi, Uganda, celebrate after hearing on a radio that the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, found Dominic Ongwen guilty of war crimes, including a massacre in their village back in 2004.

The International Criminal Court convicted child soldier-turned-Lord's Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen of war crimes and crimes against humanity Thursday. Ongwen, was the first LRA commander to face trial for its campaign of terror and violence in the early 2000s. The charges include numerous crimes against girls and women, including forced pregnancy.

Ongwen, who is now in his 40s, has that because he was kidnapped when he was around 10 years old, he was also a victim of the LRA and warlord Joseph Kony. But a three-judge panel found Ongwen guilty of 61 crimes that were committed in Northern Uganda from July of 2002 through the end of 2005.

Ongwen played a key role in Kony's attacks on civilians and refugees, as well as the LRA's horrific attacks against women, said the court at The Hague in the Netherlands.

The international court's ruling is 1,077 pages long, describing the violent unrest that gave rise to the LRA and cataloging Ongwen's crimes – including the abduction of seven women who were forced to live with him.

The court said Ongwen's crimes fall into several categories: the forced marriage, rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy and "outrages upon personal dignity" of girls and women; the murder, torture and enslavement of civilians and pillaging of property; and conscription of children under the age 15 into rebel groups to perpetuate more violence.

Several violent attacks by Ongwen's LRA forces targeted civilians living in government-established camps for displaced people in Northern Uganda, where fighters seized food that had been sent by aid programs and killed people indiscriminately.

The court's ruling described how, in the aftermath of an attack on the Odek camp, the LRA continued its depraved abuse of people who were abducted.

"Abductees were beaten for walking too slowly," the ruling stated. "One abductee was forced to kill another abductee with a club and forced to inspect corpses. Another abductee was forced to watch someone being killed. Some mothers were forced to abandon their children on the side of the road; one child was left on a rubbish pit."

The case against Ongwen also spanned crimes committed during attacks on three other camps: Pajule, Abok, and Lukodi.

After announcing the guilty verdict, the ICC scheduled a sentencing hearing for mid-April. Possible punishments for Ongwen include a prison sentence of up to 30 years and victim reparations. A life term would only be possible if the court deems his crimes merit "exceptional circumstances." The treaty that established the ICC does not provide for a death penalty.

Ongwen's trial began in December 2016. More than 4,000 victims of the LRA took part in the proceedings, represented by a trio of attorneys.

When the court issued its ruling, Amnesty International noted, it "took the unprecedented step of reading out the names of a number of individual victims" of Ongwen's and the LRA's crimes.

"While this case is important, redress must extend to the thousands of victims of the LRA's abductions, killings and mutilations, who still have not seen justice for the harms they have suffered," said Seif Magango, Amnesty's deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and Great Lakes.

Kony remains at large. The U.S. and Uganda called off the search for the notorious rebel leader in 2017.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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